A Rubenesque Motif in the Light of Tradition



A Rubenesque Motif in the Light of Tradition
Jg. 5, 2014
The Solomonic Column:
A Rubenesque Motif in the Light of Tradition
Paul Vandenbroeck
Fig. 1 Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), The Triumph of the Eucharist, 1626.
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado
As frequently documented, Rubens was a well-educated artist, with a fairly thorough knowledge of Italian and classical art, in so far as the latter was
known in the period around 1600. His iconographies are the product of indepth study of archaeology, mythology, symbolism and allegory. They are
the consciously formulated cognitive structure of a great many of Rubens’s
compositions and interpreting them has been part of Rubens studies for
the past several decades. This reflects a wider belief, peculiar to art history, that the work of art is a creation of the conscious mind. Yet this is only
one aspect of the reality. Artistic creations are equally the result of unconscious motivations, both individual and collective. Rubens’s creations, like
the work of other artists, are never entirely a product of conscious considerations. We believe – and this in no way diminishes the master’s greatness
– that an unconscious dimension is present in his work too, arising from
the artist’s unconscious impulses and from his involuntary participation in
more widely spread affective patterns.
This input is twofold: on the one hand, motifs, forms and elements that
cannot be explained, either partly or at all, by virtue of the iconographic
programme; and on the other, technical details that form part of the master’s ‘patrimony’, such as brushwork (ductus), colours and colour layers,
and compositional preferences.
An example of the first category might be Rubens’s penchant for spirals, double/opposite spirals, whirls and volutes. In addition to representing these elements literally, there are the Baroque compositions, already
described many times, which often display a diagonal and/or spiralling
internal dynamic. This was not a deliberate choice: it reflected a collective
desire, characteristic of the Baroque, for instance,1 for such a movement.
See, for example, Guillermo Díaz-Plaja, El espíritu del Barroco (Filología, 11), Barcelona: Edicíon
Crítica, 1983; Fernando Lázaro Carreter, Stile barocco e personalità creatrice. Gongora, Quevedo,
1 25
The second category demands an extremely thorough knowledge of
Rubens’s technique – a knowledge we do not possess. We will merely state
here that technique – even its micro-aspects – cannot be separated from
the deep layers of the artist’s personality, layers that thrust up to the surface, as it were, and give shape to ‘their’ programme through use of colour,
the nature and sequence of pictorial layers,2 choice of material (fluid or
thick paint), and the many aspects of brushwork (nervous, calm, rectilinear, curvilinear, stippled, involuntary tics, etc.). All these aspects are revealed much more clearly by macrophotography and laboratory research
than by direct visual examination. Commonly, they are not analysed for
their own sake, however, but in the light of statements regarding the authenticity of a work.
In the second half of this text, we will move away from the study of
Rubens’s work and the Western artistic tradition to examine the theme
of the spiral and double spiral in a transcultural context: Rubens and the
Flemish and European Baroque are a universe in themselves, but a world
too that has points of contact with other cultures. It should be noted, however, that we are not talking about ‘influences’ – that fetish of art history –
but points of contact: a shared sensibility, shared image formation without
‘influence’ in either direction. What we will explore is not immediately
relevant to Rubens; it merely illustrates how the theme in question is one
fraction of the psychic resonances that exist between cultures.3 Rubens,
like every artist, unconsciously participated in this process.
Consider Rubens’s Voyage of the Cardinal-Infant from Barcelona to
Genoa (‘Quos Ego!’), one of the temporary decorations to mark the triumphal entry of Cardinal-Infant Ferdinand into Antwerp in 1635 (fig. 2):4
A fierce north wind forced Ferdinand’s flotilla to remain at anchor in
Barcelona for thirteen days before the sea calmed and it was safe to set
sail. As so often in the artistic and literary genre of noble biographies, this
Lope de Vega, Bologna: Il Mulino, 1991; Guido Morpurgo-Tagliabue, Anatomia del Barocco, Palermo:
Aesthetica, 1987; E. Riccomini, Ordine e vaghezza, Bologna 1972; Id., Vaghezza e furore, Bologna 1977.
2 See Nico Van Hout’s study in Antwerp Royal Museum Annual 2008.
3 On resonance: Bracha Ettinger, ‘Resonance’, Antwerp Royal Museum Annual 2013, in preparation.
4 Dresden, Gemäldegalerie, inv. 966; partial copy in kmska , inv. 233.
Fig. 2 Theodoor van Thulden (1606–1669), after Rubens,
The Voyage of the Cardinal-Infant from Barcelona to Genoa (‘Quos Ego!’),
in Caspar Gevartius, Pompa introitus Ferdinandi,
Antwerp: Jan van Meurs, 1642, p. 16
­ stensibly trivial episode was transformed into a cosmic and mythological
event. The sea god Neptune, standing on a giant seashell, angrily raises his
left arm to drive off the monstrous Boreas (north wind). Boreas is depicted
as an elderly man with winged arms and snake legs. In his Pompa introitus
Ferdinandi (1642),5 Caspar Gevartius describes the scene at length, paying
attention – unconsciously as it were – to the volute, that typically Baroque
element. He quotes a passage from Pausanias that muses at length on the
notions of ‘round’ and ‘turning round’: ‘The shell on which Neptune floats
is driven forwards by three sea nymphs. Their heads are adorned with
Rubens’s portrait of Gevartius: kmska , inv. 706; see Hans Vlieghe, Rubens’ Portraits of Identified
Sitters Painted in Antwerp (Corpus Rubenianum Ludwig Burchard), New York, Harvey Miller
Publishers, s.d., pp. 113–16.
5 27
Fig. 4 Paolo Uccello
(c. 1397–1475), St George
Slaying the Dragon, c. 1470.
Detail. London, The
National Gallery
Fig. 5 Circle of the Master
of the Florian Winkler
Epitaph, Lower Austria,
c. 1470–80, St George
Slaying the Dragon.
Vienna, Dorotheum
Fig. 3 Sandro Botticelli (1445–1510), The inversive vortex of Hell, c. 1480–90. Vatican Library
pearls, and I sing of them “rising breast-high from the gray-white eddy”
(Catullus). They turn about the round shell, alluding in this way to the
maelstrom, which propels the shell forward in a circular movement. It is
known that nymphs were also called Lymphae.’6 Gevartius does not explain
why he chose to emphasize this three-fold twisting movement (nymphs,
eddy, shell). The traditional conflation of nymphs and Lymphae means that
these sea-women function as a personification of the waters.
The motif of the bend or curve, supplementing that of the twist, returns in Gevartius’s detailed description of seahorses. He says that their
name, hippocampus, derives from the Greek hippos, ‘horse’, and kampein,
‘to bend/curl/turn’ and kampe, ‘curl/turn’ and also, metaphorically, ‘twisting/escape’. Remember Boreas, with his half-snake form: the god of the
north wind also has a body that terminates in a spiral. Rubens and Gevartius present another myth – an unconscious one this time – of natural forces
behind the mythological staging of the principal theme. The power of the
6 28
Caspar Gevartius, Pompa introitus Ferdinandi …, Antwerp: Jan van Meurs, 1642, p. 16.
sea, personified by Neptune, is visualized as a whirlpool or maelstrom, and
hence as spirally twisting. This movement is heightened by rolling, turning
(female) and curling, bending (male) elements. The snake-like, bent element (Boreas) among the forces of the air is negative. These are not personal inventions by Rubens. Classical and late-antique art systematically
depicts seahorses, sea lions and tritons with curly tails,7 as we see in many
Roman murals and mosaics. Serpentine creatures are also found in another
context: in the fifteenth- and sixteenth-century iconography of demons,
fallen angels, dragons and monsters.8 We find this predilection for curling,
snake-like supernatural creatures at an earlier stage in the ‘Gallic mythology’ of Rabelais (1494–1553) and kindred spirits (figs. 3–6).9
On vases, for instance (Vatican Museums, no. 2743: seahorses and dolphins) and seashells (Turin,
Galleria Sabauda, no. 38; Gualino coll. no. 371), 6th century, with a nereid on a sea lion with an
exuberantly twisting tail (according to the inscription, a Christian work: ‘Spes mea deus meus.
Exaudi rationem meam et adinple desiderium meum’).
8 See, for example, the frontispiece of: Juan Caramuel, Philippus prudens Caroli V imp[eratoris] filius
Lusitaniae, Algarbae, Indiae, Brasiliae legitimus rex demonstratus, Antwerp, Ex Officina Plantiniana,
1639: crowned lion defeating cosmic dragon with curly tail.
9 Claude Gaignebet, A plus hault sens. L’ésotérisme spirituel et charnel de Rabelais, 2 vols., Paris:
Maisonneuve, 1986.
7 29
This twisting returns in a
neutral and aesthetically positive
sense in the figura serpentinata
of Mannerism: the human figure,
even standing, turns on its axis,
bending outwards in more than
one movement.10 From Michelangelo’s Victoria (Florence, Palazzo
Vecchio) to Ammanati, Danti and
Giambologna (La Fiorenza, Florence, Villa Petraia) in sculpture,
and from Leonardo (Leda) by way
of Rosso Fiorentino (Pallas Athena,
print by Jacopo Caraglio), Pontormo and Parmigianino to FrancesFig. 6 Workshop of Fernando Gallego
(c. 1440–1507), Christ in Limbo, c. 1490–1500.
co Salviati. The serpentinata is an
Detail. Gobierno del Principado de Asturias
evocation of supple power and el‘Colección Masaveu’
egance, a combination embodying
the quality of sprezzatura. A ‘snake
figure’ was already characteristic of the Gothic, incidentally, from around
1330 until the so-called International Gothic around 1420. Here too, the
posture is an image of dynamic elegance specific to the courtly style. It is
not our intention here, however, to explore the late-medieval and Renaissance image and ideal of humanity in any greater depth, but to examine the
motif of the spiral and the volute, separate from the human figure.
What is most important in a subsymbolic and symbolic regard are double volutes and spiral columns. Double volutes (always in opposition) are
a key element in architecture from the late sixteenth century onwards,
­especially during the Baroque, in the design of portals and church facades in both Italy and the North, and that of houses in the Low Countries
and German territories. We find volutes and/or spiral columns in monu­
mental Baroque architecture (altars, exposition thrones, confessionals), in
Fig. 7 Joos Lesteens,
Monstrance, 1641–42.
Photograph: kik-irpa Fig. 8 Anonymous, Exposition
throne, c. 1650. Huldenberg,
Photograph: kik-irpa
Fig. 9 Peeter Scheemaeckers
(1640–1714), St Joseph altar,
1684. Aarschot, Onze-LieveVrouwekerk. Photograph:
­ recious metalwork (monstrances), furniture-making and other decorap
tive arts (figs. 7–9). They are invariably double or quadruple.
Most of the earlier literature does not distinguish between straight
columns, the shaft of which is decorated with spiral lines, fluting or tendrils, and genuinely twisted columns, the axis of which also spirals.11 The
straight pillar with spiral decoration already existed in Minoan Crete
(1600–1250 bce),12 is found sporadically in classical architecture (the socalled Poros column on the Acropolis in Athens, 6th century bce),13 and
becomes a frequent element in the architecture of the Roman East (Palmyra, Heliopolis, Gerasa, Apamea, etc.). An intermediate stage – the straight
column with spiral decoration, but bulging out between the spiral lines – is
See Chapot 1907, Fuchs 1951.
Chapot 1907, p. 37. Also: Vladimir Popovitch, ‘Observations sur l’origine de la spirale en Égée’,
Revue archéologique 1 (1958), pp. 129–136.
13 Theodor Wiegand, Die archaische Porosarchitektur der Akropolis in Athen, Leipzig 1904, p. 172.
11 12 Emil Maurer, Manierismus. Figura serpentinata und andere Figurenideale, Munich: Wilhelm Fink
Verlag, 2001, pp. 21–79.
10 30
found on antique coins, for instance, from Samos.14 The true helical column is assumed to have been developed in the Hellenistic East, but precise
details of location and context have so far been lacking.
Spirally twisted pillars were called ‘Solomonic columns’, because they
had been ‘invented’, according to Judeo-Christian tradition, by King Solomon.15 A late-antique Jewish pictorial tradition shows the two columns
of the Temple with spiral decorations.16 Christian representations placed
them at the so-called ‘Porta Speciosa’ of the Temple. Following the latter’s destruction, the Romans supposedly took them to their capital, either
in 70 ce or under Emperor Constantine. They were then displayed in the
apse of St Peter’s as of the early Christian era. The design of these columns
is Hellenistic (fig. 10), so they clearly cannot have come from Solomon’s
Temple (10th century bce?).17
The columns were installed in the fourth century above St Peter’s tomb
in the apse of the early Christian church, where they formed the pergula
in front of the high altar or the confessio sancti Petri. We learn about their
configuration from sixteenth-century paintings and engravings18 – information corrected by recent archaeological discoveries. A number of twisted columns must have been erected under Pope Silvester (314–335) and
Constantine, in a configuration documented in the fourth or fifth century
in a relief on the Samagher relic casket and confirmed by modern archaeological excavations:19 ‘and Emperor Constantine … had [the space] above
the tomb decorated with columns of porphyry and with other columns
wound around with tendrils which he had brought from Greece.’ Four centuries later, the Exarch Eutychius presented Pope Gregory iii (731–741)
with six additional columns: ‘[the pope had] these twisted onyx columns
given by the Exarch Eutychius taken to the church of St Peter and installed
erga presbyterium [facing the presbytery or sanctuary] and before the confessio, three on the right-hand side and three on the left, alongside other
similar antique columns [i.e. the ones presented by Constantine].’20 The
configuration was then altered to make two rows of six, one behind the
A number of fourth-century medals also depict similar configurations: one with a martyrium (the martyrdom of St Lawrence is shown on
the obverse),22 one with the inscription ‘Gaudentianus’, with an unknown
Fig. 10a–b Roman
Hellenistic, 2nd
century? Salomonic
column. Rome, Basilica
of St Peter
See, for example, Tiberio Alfarano, De basilicae vaticanae antiquissima et nova structura,
ed. Michele Cerrati, Rome 1914.
19 Tuzi 2002, p. 79, ill. 7–8; p. 81, ill. 13–15.
20 Tuzi 2002, p. 83, ill. 16; p. 84, ill. 17. See also Fuchs 1951, and Cerrati 1914, op. cit. (n. 18), p. 53, with
reference to the Liber pontificalis, vol. 1, ed. Duchesne, Paris 1886, p. 79 (Augustus Constantinus … sic
inclusit corpus beati Petri et recondit. Et exornavit supra columnas porphyreticas et alias columnas
vitineas quas de Grecia perduxit) and p. 417 (Hic concessas sibi columnas onichinas volutiles ab
Eutychio exarcho duxit eas in ecclesiam beati Petri apostoli, quas statuit erga presbyterium ante
confessionem, tres a dextris et tres a sinistris, iuxta alias antiquas filopares).
21 Eleven of these columns were reused in the Baroque interior of the new St Peter’s: the Columna
sancta, which stood for many years in the chapel where Michelangelo’s Pietà is displayed (now in
the Museo Sacro); two by the altar of St Francis in the Chapel of the Sacrament, two by the altar
of St Longinus; and six in the galleries of St Helena, St Veronica and St Andrew.
22 Chapot 1907, pp. 142–43, figs. 192 and 193; Ferdinando Castagnoli, ‘Probabili raffigurazioni del
ciborio intorno alla memoria di S. Pietro in due medaglie del iv secolo’, Rivista di archeologia
cristiana 29 (1953), pp. 98–101.
18 Rykwert 1996, p. 261.
Thorough study: Tuzi 2002.
16 May Talbot, ‘Saint Pierre de Moissac’s portal and its Solomonic guardians’, Comitatus.
A Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies 27 (1996), pp. 81–98, esp. p. 90, ill. 8–9.
17 Perkins 1952, pp. 21–33.
14 15 32
Fig. 11 Anonymous, 4th century,
Early Christian medal of
Gaudentianus, with martyrium.
After Chapot 1907 martyrium and several worshippers (fig. 11).23 The first depiction shows a
structure almost identical to the Constantinian pergula, spanned by two
arches, while the second presents a configuration with no linking arches.
Perhaps the most accurate representation is provided by the Hermagoras relic casket from Samagher:24 a ‘holy space’ supported by six helical columns, with curtains opening in the breeze, and an open ciborium
or canopy formed by two intersecting arches, from which a crown is suspended; two male orants on the right and two female orants on the left, and
two celebrants (?) in the middle (fig. 12).
St Peter’s was compared from the fourth century onwards with the
Temple of Solomon and the Tabernacle of Moses. Tiberio Alfarano discusses this at length in his book De basilicae vaticanae antiquissima et
nova structura (1590). He scrutinizes every element of St Peter’s Basilica
in comparison with the components and proportions of the two Old Testament sanctuaries. Modern archaeologists too have investigated the extent
to which the church ‘reproduces’ the Temple and Tabernacle physically,
symbolically and spiritually.25 It is entirely understandable in this light
how, since the fourth century, people have wanted to lend weight to this
mystical (but strongly desired) connection by incorporating precious and
aesthetically potent ‘original elements’ from the Temple of Solomon. The
Tuzi 2002, p. 79, ill. 9.
Antonio Gnirs, ‘La basilica ed il reliquiario d’avorio di Samagher presso Pola’, Atti e memorie della
Società di Archeologie e storia patria 34 (Parenzo 1908), pp. 5–48.
25 Turpin Bannister, ‘The Constantinian Basilica of Saint Peter at Rome’, Journal of the Society of
Architectural Historians 27 (1968), pp. 3–32; Tuzi 2002, pp. 75–78. See also: B.M. Apolloni Ghetti et al.,
Esplorazioni sotto la confessione di San Pietro in Vaticano, Vatican City 1951.
basilica, as a physical manifestation of Christianity, is the New Temple par
‘Real’ Solomonic columns are those in which the axis itself is helical
in form, and which therefore display a much more dynamic inner movement. The energetic charge of such columns is entirely different from that
of straight columns with a spiral decoration. The true helix column arose
during the so-called ‘Roman-Hellenistic Baroque’ period in the second and
third centuries. The vigorously bulging spiral column offered an appropriate stylistic motif for the emotionality of this era, which also experienced a
huge influx of Levantine and Eastern philosophy and religion. Columns of
this kind are found in the West in, for instance, coins of Roman emperors
beginning in the late second century.26 Two helical columns have survived
from the nymphaeum in Nîmes:27 there are growths, resembling buds on
a twig, on their curves, and they are crowned with artichokes with leaves
and flowers beneath. The artichoke, like the pine-cone, was a symbol of
female vitality and positively flowing energy,28 making it an ideal emblem
for a site devoted to the veneration of nymphs. The decoration of a number
Fig. 12 Anonymous, c. 400?
Hermagoras relic casket
from Samagher (Pola,
Istria). Venice, Museo
23 24 34
Chapot 1907.
Chapot 1907, p. 134, fig. 165.
28 On the pine-cone: Paul Vandenbroeck, ‘Virgenes canarias’, in El fruto de la fé. El legado artístico
de Flandes en la isla de La Palma, Madrid: Fundación Carlos de Amberes, 2004.
26 27 35
of these antique twisted columns includes vines and putti – a motif that fits
in with the Bacchic atmosphere.29 Dionysian temples were probably decorated with columns like this. The buds and growths, meanwhile, reflect
an old tradition in which similar ‘swellings’ were a symbol of fecundity.
The Greek gonu and Latin geniculum refer to the buds of sprouting twigs;
the words gonu (Gr.) and genu (Lat.), ‘knee’, are related to them, as are the
Greek gignomai and the Latin gignere, meaning to ‘(re)produce’.30 The knee
has similar connotations in Afro-Asiatic languages. The Berber word afud,
for instance, means ‘knee’, ‘knee joint’, ‘swelling’ (of a plant from which a
shoot or twig will sprout), and also ‘strength’ or ‘procreative power’.31 The
same goes for the vines and trails around the Solomonic column: they are
a symbol of growth.
It is not clear how often twisted columns were chosen in the late-antique period. A huge amount has been lost, leaving only a few surviving
specimens. The Museo Nazionale Romano has a helical column covered
with plant tendrils,32 and others can be found in Stabiae,33 at the Museo di
San Martino in Naples (originally in Santa Chiara, which was destroyed
in 1943), in Cave di Palestrina (San Carlo), and in the Trinità dei Monti in
Rome; there are examples in Istanbul too.34 In some cases, these columns
came complete with legends concerning their origin in the Temple in Jerusalem – the examples in Naples, for instance, and Cave di Palestrina.35
The helical column was also popular in the late-antique period for
both pagan and Christian sarcophagi and stelae, as well as for relic caskets
and memoriae of saints, as demonstrated by coins and medals featuring
a martyrium (of St Lawrence?).36 The helix features in all these cases in
the context of death and resurrection to new life, and of the extraordinary
‘strength’ of martyrs, making it a perfect motif with which to evoke the
holiest of energy.
A large fragment from a Coptic textile (6th century) shows a twisted
column, wrapped around with vines.37 We do not know of what object the
piece is a fragment; it might be part of a fabric showing Dionysian images.38
A huge Coptic tapestry dating from the fourth century and showing a Dionysian procession uses fanciful columns to separate the depicted figures.
They are not truly Solomonic, yet their exuberantly twisting decoration
does create a very similar impression.39 This Coptic iconography supports
the interpretation of Solomonic columns as ‘Bacchic’. Spiral-shaped honey
cakes (streptoi) were given to children to mark the Dionysian/Bacchic anthesteria festivals and were also offered in a funerary context, including to
the deceased.40 Dizziness induced by spiralling played a significant part in
Dionysian dance, as it did in later therapeutic trance dance rituals.
In addition to the pagan context in which they arose, there is also the
conviction, of course, that they were connected with the Temple in Jerusalem. The entrance to the Temple, rebuilt under Herod, was decorated with
vines (according to Flavius Josephus), which means a link could already
be made with ‘Dionysian’ columns. Linkage with Solomon had become an
established tradition no later than the fourth century.41
We know of Carolingian manuscripts featuring canones or concordance tables, which were placed beneath canopies supported by Solomonic
and other columns.42 Twisted columns were sometimes used in the M
­ iddle
Tuzi 2002, p. 88.
Hermann Stieglecker, ‘Zeugen, Wissen, und Knie im Semitischen und Indogermanischen’,
Anthropos, 1927, pp. 1000–1003. ‘Knee’ and ‘bend’ were also a symbol of ‘generation/procreative
power’ in a non-Indo-European context. See Marcel Cohen, ‘Genou, famille, force dans le domaine
chamito-sémitique’, in Mémorial Henri Basset. Nouvelles études nord-africaines et orientales
(Publications de l’Institut des hautes-études marocaines, 17), Paris 1928, pp. 204–10.
31 P. Galand-Pernet, ‘“Genou” et “force” en Berbère’, in Mélanges Marcel Cohen, The Hague and Paris:
Mouton, 1970, pp. 254–62.
32 Germain Bazin, ‘La colonne salomonique’, L’Œil, 1981, no. 316, pp. 56–62.
33 Paolo Di Caterina, ‘Le colonne spiraliforme di Stabiae: un indagine iconologica’, Antigua 1 (1976),
no. 2, pp. 47–54.
34 Perkins 1952; Tuzi 2002, pp. 93–95.
35 Already in: Francesco Gonzaga, De origine seraphicae religionis, Rome: Domenico Basa, 1587, p. 114
(on Naples); Tuzi 2002, pp. 94–95.
29 30 36
Chapot 1907; Tuzi 2002.
London, Victoria & Albert Museum, inv. 819–1905. Rutschowscaya 1990, p. 7. See also Au fil du Nil.
Couleurs de l’Égypte chrétienne (exh. cat., Paris-Nantes, Musée du Louvre/Musée Dobrée), 2001,
p. 174.
38 Viktor Lenzen, ‘The Triumph of Dionysos on Textiles of Late Antique Egypt’, University of
California Publications in Classical Archaeology 5 (1960), pp. 1–23.
39 Riggisberg (Bern), Abegg Stiftung, inv. 3100a. Rutschowscaya 1990, pp. 84–85.
40 Maria Daraki, Dionysos, Paris: Arthaud, 1985, p. 86.
41 Tuzi 2002, pp. 21–40.
42 Elizabeth Rosenbaum, ‘The vine columns of Old St. Peter’s in Carolingian Canon Tables’, Journal
36 37 37
Fig. 13 Anonymous, c. 1200.
Absis mosaic: Tree of Life in the shape
of a double spiral, springing from the
Fountain of Life. Rome, San Clemente.
Photograph: the author
Fig. 14 Maestri cosmateschi, 13th century.
Schola cantorum: the double spiral. Rome, San Clemente.
Photograph: the author
Ages in Romanesque architecture and decorative art, especially that of
the Cosmati. Examples include the facade of Orvieto Cathedral, the ambo
of Ravello Cathedral (Campania), and the Sacro Speco in Subiaco.43 And
in Rome itself: the pluteus in San Saba; the Paschal Candle in San Clemente; the Santa Maria in Cosmedin; the Sant’Anselmo and Santa Cecilia
in Trastevere; the small tabernacle in San Crisogono; the bishop’s thrones
in San Lorenzo fuori le Mura, San Silvestro in Capite, and San Giovanni
in Laterano; the ambos of San Cesareo and Santa Maria in Aracoeli; the
of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 18 (1955), pp. 1–15.
43 Tuzi 2002, p. 71, ill. 74; Serena Romano, Eclissi di Roma. Pittura murale a Roma da Bonifacio VIII
a Martino V (1295–1431), Rome: Argos, 1992.
cloister at San Giovanni in Laterano and San Paolo fuori le Mura;44
and the structure behind the thirteenth-century throne of St Peter
in the Vatican Caves.45 We should
also mention the twelfth-century
architecture of the cathedral in
Santiago de Compostela, where
Bishop Diego Gelmírez saw his
work as a continuation of St Peter’s
in Rome: the helical columns of the
lost north facade (now in the cathedral museum), the Silversmiths’
Porch and the exterior of the capilla mayor.46
It was during the same Renaissance of around 1200 that grandiose works like the apse mosaic at
San Clemente in Rome were completed. In a single movement, a Fig. 15 Anonymous, Weingarten, c. 1215–17.
cosmic panorama is sketched from Sacramentary of Berthold: Christ as the Tree of Life
in a double spiral. New York, The Morgan Library
Creation to Salvation: a tree grows and Museum, Ms. 710
above the spring in the Garden
of Eden, and the cross is overarched by the heavens (figs. 13–16). As the
poet Hippolytus of Rome put it in around 200 ce : ‘This tree, wide as the
heavens itself, has grown up into heaven from the earth. It is an immortal
growth and towers twixt heaven and earth. It is the fulcrum of all things
and the place where they are at rest. It is the foundation of the round
world, the centre of the cosmos.… It touches the highest summits of heavPaloma Pajares Ayuela, ‘Cosmatesque ornament. Flat Polychrome Patterns in Architecture’,
New York and London: W. W. Norton, 2001, pp. 40, 86, 89, 90, 92, 97, 98, 107, 115, 172, 183.
45 Romei e giubilei. Il pellegrinaggio medievale a San Pietro (350–1350), ed. Mario D’Onofrio (exh. cat.),
Milan: Electa, 1999.
46 Taín Guzmán 2006, p. 148; Luces de peregrinación (exh. cat.), Santiago de Compostela 2003,
pp. 150–54.
44 39
en and makes the earth firm beneath its foot,
and it grasps the middle regions between
them with its immeasurable arms.… O Crucified One, thou leader of the mystical dan­
ces!… O this divine Pascha that passes from
heaven to earth and rises up again to heaven!
O this new feast of all beings! O joy of the
universe … exquisite delight by which … life
returns to all and the gates of heaven are
opened! God appeared as a man and man
rose up as God.…’47 The life-giving connection between heaven and earth is the cross,
the world-axis on either side of which two
Fig. 16 Tree of Life in the shape of a
gigantic vines spiral upwards. The work has
double spiral. Isfahan, Madrasah of
a similar sense to that behind the Indian
the Shah’s Mother
Kundalini and the two energy-spirals that
twist around it in opposite directions. The
double spiral at San Clemente unites Christ’s sacrifice on the cross with
(re)creating, life- and joy-giving, and redeeming divine forces. Realization
of this was so overwhelming for medieval people that it sometimes translated itself into ecstatic laughter (risus paschalis). This sense of primordial
power, redemptive dynamism and joyful exuberance is also evoked by the
Solomonic column.48
Gothic stylistic sensibility was not inclined whatsoever towards ‘baroque’ Solomonic columns. Nevertheless, twisted columns still cropped
up from time to time in Italian painting, where they serve, oddly enough,
as a ‘framing’ element. We find them, for instance, in Simone Martini and
Taddeo Gaddi.49 The column’s role had been reduced by the time of the
Renaissance to that of an apparently meaningless element of altarpiece
frames. It was precisely in the fifteenth century, however, that renewed
attention began to be paid to the dynamic value of the twisted column. In
1438 Cardinal Orsini had the Colonna Santa protected from overenthusiastic pilgrims by placing a marble enclosure around it with a wrought-iron
fence (fig. 10). The inscription on the stone states that ‘this is the column …
brought in triumph with the other eleven columns here surrounding it
from the Temple of Solomon … it expels demons and restores those afflicted by unclean spirits to freedom, and it performs many miracles daily’.50
This column was naturally venerated more than the others, since it was
believed that Christ had leaned against it, and ‘passed on’ to it his dunamis [strength, dynamic]; yet it is one more sign of how Solomonic columns
were perceived as extremely ‘potent’.
The iconographic tradition of surrounding the Holy of Holies with
Solomonic columns was also known in the fifteenth century, as we see
in miniatures by Jean Fouquet in a manuscript of around 1476 of Flavius
Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews;51 although Fouquet gave the Temple a
late-Gothic appearance, he characterized it both internally and externally
using Solomonic columns. He did the same in the Hours of Étienne Chevalier in a miniature of the Marriage of the Virgin, where the Temple’s portal
is given the appearance of a Roman triumphal arch with three passages,
the central one of which is flanked by a pair of Solomonic columns. Any
doubt as to the nature of the building is removed by the inscription Templum Salomonis.
Many intellectuals became fascinated in the sixteenth century by the
ancient Temple of Solomon, where Solomonic columns had supposedly
originated. A variety of antiquarians and other scholars devoted theses to
the subject in Spain alone. In addition to well-known men of letters like
Benito Arias Montano, they included Francisco de Monzón (1544),52 Pedro
Mexía (1545),53 Juan de Vergara (1552),54 Pablo de Céspedes (1548?–1608),55
Tuzi 2002, p. 97 n. 51. See also Cerrati 1914, p. 54. English translation Dale Kinney, ‘Spolia’ in
William Tronzo (ed.), St Peter’s in the Vatican, Cambridge University Press, 2005, p. 35.
51 K. Perls, Jean Fouquet, Paris 1940, p. 215, fig. 248.
52 Libro primero del espejo del príncipe christiano, Lisbon 1544.
53 Silva de varia lección, Seville: Jácome Cromberger, 1543 [modern edition: Madrid: Cátedra, 1989].
54 Tratado de las ocho qüestiones del Templo, Toledo: Juan Ferrer, 1552.
55 J. Rubio Lapaz, Pablo de Céspedes y su círculo. Humanismo y contrarreforma en la cultura andaluza
del Renacimiento al Barroco, Granada 1993.
50 Hugo Rahner, Greek Myths and Christian Mystery, New York, Harper & Row, 1971, pp. 67–68.
G. Dufour-Kowalska, L’arbre de vie et la croix. Essai sur l’imagination visionnaire, Geneva 1985.
49 As in his Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple (Florence, Santa Croce, Baroncelli Chapel) and
his Allegory of Christian Faith (Florence, Cappella degli Spagnoli).
47 48 40
Fig. 17 Raphael (1483–1520), Acts of the Apostles: The Healing of a Lame Man.
Tapestry cartoon. Windsor, The Royal Collection
Juan Bautista Villalpando (1552–1608),56 Héctor Pino (1568) and Francisco
de Ribera (1593). These studies and debates57 focused repeatedly on the
Solomonic column.58
Columns of this type were reimported into Western art on a large scale
by Raphael’s cartoons for the tapestry cycle of the Acts of the Apostles 59
(fig. 17) and Scenes from the Life of Christ. The Temple is supported by several rows of Solomonic columns in both the Healing of a Lame Man and the
Presentation of Christ in the Temple.
56 Dios arquitecto. J.B. de Villalpando y el templo de Salomón, Madrid 1994; R. Taylor, ‘El padre
Villalpando (1552–1608) y sus ideas estéticas’, Academia, 1952, pp. 411–73.
57 Martínez Ripoll 1987.
58 The construction of El Escorial played a part in all this: see José Luis Sánchez Molero, Los orígenes
de la imagen salomónica del Real Monasterio de San Lorenzo del Escorial, in dialnet.unirioja.es
59 J. Shearman, Raphael’s Cartoons in the collection of Her Majesty the Queen and the Tapestries
for the Sistine Chapel, London 1972, pp. 55–57, 80.
Fig. 18 Giulio Romano (1499?–1546), The Donation of Constantine, c. 1520–24.
Vatican, Sala di Costantino
Giulio Romano’s Donation of Constantine (fig. 18) tells us how people in
the sixteenth century imagined that the pillars were originally configured.
The artist draws on his archaeological and antiquarian knowledge in an attempt to depict the scene with greater historical accuracy. He based himself on what was still known of circumstances before the construction of
the new St Peter’s, rendering the pergola in front of the confessio as a row
of six Solomonic columns, connected by an architrave, on which a candle
stands above each column. The artist has conflated two successive config43
Fig. 19 Giulio Romano (1499?–1546), c. 1520–25. The Circumcision of Christ. Paris, Musée du Louvre
urations here. It was known that Constantine had donated six pillars to
adorn the confessio under Pope Sylvester. Recent archaeological research
revealed that these were configured in the manner depicted on the Samagher relic casket (fig. 12).60 Modifications were made around 600, when
Pope Gregory the Great (590–604) had the floor of the apse raised and an
altar installed there, above the memoria Petri. A crypt was excavated beneath this level, allowing closer access to the tomb. The new configuration
met the insatiable desire to get as close as possible to the saint’s mortal
remains: the closer one came, the more efficacious it was believed the relics would be. Gregory the Great also had the Solomonic columns moved to
form a single frontal row dividing the Holy of Holies from the nave. This
row was doubled when the Exarch Eutychius presented Pope Gregory iii
(731–41) with six more helical columns. The situation remained like this
until the beginning of the sixteenth century, when Bramante had the outer
row of columns removed to allow the installation of a structure intended to
protect the holiest places during the demolition of the old St Peter’s Basilica and the construction of the new one.61 Romano painted the Constantinian columns in a single row, by analogy with the situation at the beginning
of the sixteenth century. He was unaware of the original form of the Constantinian pergula, and based himself on what was visible in his own time,
assuming that the ‘original’ configuration could be visualized by mentally
removing the outermost row of columns, installed in the eighth century.
In his Circumcision of Christ (fig. 19), Giulio follows Raphael’s design
with solid, parallel rows of twisted columns that form a thicket of pillars. Elsewhere, in his design for Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery
(known from a print by Diana Scultori) he changes his conception of the
Temple to a circular building surrounded by a colonnade of Solomonic
pillars. We find similar architecture in a drawing by Francesco Salviati,
Solomon Directing the Building of the Temple.62 Drawings by Romano of
Robin Jensen, Living Water: Images, Symbols, and Settings of Early Christian Baptism, Leiden: Brill,
2011, pp. 95–98, with extensive bibliography.
61 Tuzi 2002.
62 Tuzi 2002, p. 161, ill. 15 (Florence, Uffizi, no. 756 E).
60 44
columns like this were also in circulation.63 The artist was active as an architect and ‘decorator’ too, in which respect he was revolutionary. He built
La Rustica, also known as the Cavallerizza at the Palazzo Te in Mantua,
in which the twisted columns are attached to the facade as engaged columns. What makes this so innovative is that Romano broke with the twothousand-year-old blueprint of classical orders of columns, establishing
the Solomonic column as a ‘new order’ and doing so in a secular context,
to boot. The twisted columns lend the otherwise heavy, immobile, ‘rustic’ ­facade a highly Mannerist, contradictory dynamic. Giulio decorated
the Giardino Secreto at the same palace with trompe-l’œil architecture in
which twisted columns delineate and articulate the various illusionistic
landscapes. Maarten van Heemskerck sketched them around 1532. Giulio
also experimented at length with helical columns, in the frescoes for the
Sala di Psiche, for instance, and the Palazzina di Margherita la Paleologa at
the Palazzo Ducale. Since the 1530s, copies had been present at the same
palace of the Acts of the Apostles tapestry cycle designed by Raphael. Two
of these compositions likewise swarmed with Solomonic columns. Giulio
and his pupil Cristoforo Sorte contributed significantly to the dissemination of the Solomonic column, not least in north-east Italy (Mantua, Padua
and Venice).64 Sorte’s book Osservazioni sulla pittura (1584; first edition
Venice: Girolamo Zenaro, 1580) also contains prints of columns like this,
viewed da sotto in sù. The twisted column was introduced into Venetian
painting by the likes of Andrea Schiavone (Adoration of the Magi; Milan,
Ambrosiana) and Paolo Veronese (Venice, San Sebastiano, fresco in the
sacristy). The Solomonic columns, viewed from below in his grandiose
Annunciation in the Cappella del Rosario in Santi Giovanni e Paolo, seem
to twist like vortices. Veronese used the same motif in secular contexts
too, including his Apotheosis of Venice at the Palazzo Ducale. Solomonic
columns appeared in works by other artists as well, both in Venice65 and
elsewhere.66 Jan Soens’s organ
doors at Santa Maria della Steccata in Parma lie on the cusp between religious and secular art.
The columns in this instance
frame the serpentinata figures of
St Cecilia and St David, painted
by Parmigianino half a century
earlier.67 The columns themselves
are half veiled, as if they were the
bearers of some great secret. The
dynamism of the overall composition evokes the welling sounds
of the organ. Several other imFig. 20 Benvenuto Tisi, il Garofalo (1481–1559).
portant sixteenth-century works
Christ among the Doctors. Dresden, Gemäldegalerie
Alte Meister
ought also to be cited. Ludovico
de Mazzolino’s Christ among the
Doctors (1519–20) (Rome, Galleria Doria Pamphilj), for instance, places the
action beneath a small ciborium – with two helical columns at the front –
of a type that closely resembles actual oratories in the old St Peter’s Basilica, such as that of Pope John vii (705) with Veronica’s Veil. A drawing of
the little monument was done in the sixteenth century by G. Grimaldi, and
later by Giambattista Ricci.68 Garofalo’s Christ among the Doctors (fig. 20)
has Jesus leaning against the Colonna Santa, as per the tradition, and as
shown in the drawing album Os desenhos das antigualhas by the Portuguese
artist and antiquarian Francisco de Holanda (1545).69 Other examples include Garofalo’s St Anthony (Rome, Palazzo Barberini); Marcello Venusti’s
­Purification of the Temple (London, National Gallery); G
­ iulio Sanuti’s Marriage of the Virgin; Pirro Ligorio’s Dance of Salome (fresco at San ­Giovanni
63 E.g. Oxford, Christ Church, no. 419 jbs 419 (Giulio Romano 1989).
Giulio Romano. Atti del convegno internazionale di studi su Giulio Romano e l’espansione europea
del Rinascimento, Mantua 1989, passim. Veronese also used the motif several times, including in his
Apotheosis of Venice in the Palazzo Ducale.
65 J. Schulz, Venetian Painted Ceilings of the Renaissance, Los Angeles 1968.
66 64 67 E. Sjöstrom, Quadratura. Studies in Italian Ceiling Painting, Stockholm 1978, pp. 41–45.
Parmigianino und der europäische Manierismus (exh. cat. Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum),
Milan: Silvana Editoriale, 2003, pp. 218–19.
68 Tuzi 2002, p. 197 and ill. 46–48.
69 Tuzi 2002, p. 177 and ill. 46.
Decollato, Rome: Herod’s palace is supported by Ionic pillars separated by
pairs of twisted columns, with no architectural function, topped by entablatures); Giorgio Vasari’s Presentation of
the Virgin in the Temple (Naples, Museo
di Capodimonte) and his Coronation of
Esther (executed by Giovanni Stradano;
fig. 21), in which the action is staged
beneath an immense stone canopy supported by four Solomonic columns – a
Mannerist forerunner, as it were, of
Bernini’s baldacchino (Florence, Palazzo Vecchio, Sala di Ester); and Domenico Carnevali’s Presentation of Christ in
the Temple (Modena, Galleria Estense).
Seventeenth-century examples are too
numerous to list here. We will limit
ourselves to mentioning the early-seventeenth-century architectural phanFig. 21 Giovanni Stradano (Jan van der
tasms of ‘Desiderio Monsú’ (fig. 22).70
Straet; 1523–1605), after Giorgio Vasari
(1511–1574), Esther and Ahasverus. Florence, The Solomonic column does not appear
Palazzo Vecchio, Sala di Ester
in Spanish art until after 1580, where we
find it in Pellegrino Ribaldi’s frescoes in
El Escorial (Presentation in the Temple,
Marriage of the Virgin, P
­ urification of the Temple, and Christ among the Doctors, from 1582 onwards) and in Francisco Alfaro’s fresco for the tabernacle
of Seville Cathedral in 1593.71 Alfaro developed a pre-­Borrominian archi70 See for example The Purification of the Temple (Véronique Damian, Quatre nouveaux tableaux
génois de Strozzi, Castiglione, Piola et Bacicio. Une sélection de tableaux du xvii e siècle, Paris: Galerie
Canesso, 2013, pp. 18–21).
71 Ramón Otero Tunez, ‘Las primeras columnas salomónicas de España’, in Boletín de la Universidad
de Santiago 63 (1955), pp. 337–51; Santiago Sebastián, ‘Génesis del soporte salomónico en el mundo
hispánico’, Boletín del Centro de Investigaciones históricas y estéticas de la Universidad Central de
Venezuela 19 (1974), pp. 164–66.
Fig. 22 ‘Desiderio Monsú’, King David in the Temple, early 17th century.
Whereabouts unknown
tecture: the tabernacle is an oval, central building, articulated externally by
Solomonic columns; the artist drew for his design on Pablo de Céspedes’s
treatise on the Temple of Solomon.72 Fascination with the Solomonic column was shared, incidentally, by the Jewish community in early-modern
Europe. There are sixteenth-century Hebrew publications in which pairs
of Solomonic columns structure the frontispieces, including the Sefer
hazoar (Mantua, 1556) and the Zurat beit hamidaqdash (Prague, 1602).73
Embroidered wall-hangings (parokhot) appeared in many synagogues, certainly from the seventeenth century onwards.74
Martínez Ripoll 1987, p. 155.
Bracha Yaniv, ‘The Origin of the Two-Column Motif in European Parokhot’, Jewish Art 15 (1989),
pp. 26–43.
74 Tuzi 2002, pp. 37–39.
72 73 49
The fact that these columns
were more common in paintings
than in architecture in the sixteenth century might reflect the
fact that the technical and mathematical knowledge needed to
construct spiral pillars was not yet
readily available. The first thorough study of them did not appear until Vignola’s famous and
influential treatise on architecture
(1562; fig. 23). Solomonic columns
likewise feature in Cristoforo
Sorte’s Osservazioni sulla pittura
(1584; first edition Venice: Girolamo Zenaro, 1580). Jacques Androuet du Cerceau, among others,
had previously incorporated two
triumphal arches with Solomonic
columns in his xxv exempla arcuum, but these were simple depictions without any mathematical
underpinning (1549). Solomonic
columns also began to appear from
around this time in the decorations installed to mark the triumFig. 23 Giacomo Vignola (1507–1573), Regola delle
phal entries of princes into cities.
cinque ordini d’architettura, Rome 1562
We know from Bernard Salomon’s
woodcuts, for instance, that portals flanked by twisted columns featured in the ceremonial entrance of
King Henry ii of France into Lyons in 1548.75 Netherlandish artists like
Maarten van Heemskerck, who was active in Rome from 1532 to 1535,76
also helped spread the Solomonic column beyond Italy.
As we saw above, the twisted column rapidly shrugged off its religious
connotations – a process that occurred in architecture, with the painters
following suit. A single decade after Giulio Romano’s creation in Mantua,
Giorgio Vasari painted Virtue’s Reward (Rome, Palazzo della Cancelleria,
Sala dei Cento Giorni) in 1546. The allegory is set in an imaginary building, supported by rows of helical columns. The Solomonic column is repeatedly used a little later in the frescoes of the Fasti Farnesiani (Rome,
Palazzo Farnese). The decoration of the Villa d’Este in Tivoli by a group
of artists around Girolamo Muziano followed in 1565.77 Several rooms
were given highly illusionistic imitation architecture supported by twisted columns. Pirro Ligorio built the ‘Emperor Fountain’ in the same villa
(1568–70), around which highly energetic Solomonic columns articulate
the rustica walls. The frescoes then followed in 1586–87 (Rome, Palazzo
Giustiniani) with the History of Solomon, completed by Four Virtues: Religion, Diligence, Vigilance and Eloquence. As in the previous examples, the
articulating columns create a rhythmic, twisting dynamic. Paolo Veronese
brought the Solomonic column into secular art too in Veneto: in the frescoes of Palladio’s Villa Maser (1566–88), and in the Apotheosis of Venice in
the Palazzo Ducale in 1577. Here too, the column evokes a sense of dynamic
grandeur and triumph.
It is evident from these examples that the Solomonic column had made
its definitive entrance by the sixteenth century, in both monumental painting and – to a lesser extent – building and architectural decoration. Three
ensembles of Mannerist paintings in Roman churches mark the revival of
the Solomonic motif and so deserve special mention here. The first is the
ceiling painting in Santa Maria dell’Orto by the Rosa brothers in 1556. The
work was lost in the nineteenth century, and is now known solely through
See La magnificence de la superbe et triumphante entree de la noble et antique cité de Lyon faicte
au treschrestien roy de France Henry deuxiesme de ce nom et à la royne Catherine son espouse le XXIII
de septembre M.D.XLVIII, Lyons: Guillaume Roville, 1549, fol. E2 (www.gallica.com).
75 50
76 See C. Hülsen and H. Egger, Die Römischen Skizzenbücher von Marten van Heemskerck, 2 vols.,
Berlin 1913–16.
77 The same effect is achieved in the ground-floor salon (Seconda Sala Tiburtina). D. Coffin, The Villa
d’Este at Tivoli, Princeton 1960; Véronique Bücken, ‘Deux flamands dans l’atelier de Jacopo Bertoja:
Joos van Winghe et Bartholomaeus Spranger’, in Lelio Orsi e la cultura del suo tempo. Atti del
convegno internazionale di studi, Reggio Emilia – Novellara 1988, Bologna 1990, pp. 49–56.
Fig. 24 Livio Agresti (c. 1508–c. 1580) et al., Frescoes with Solomonic columns.
Rome, Oratorio del Gonfalone
Fig. 25 Baldassare Croce (1558–1628), Life of St Susanna, 1598–1600. Rome, Santa Susanna
a seventeenth-century drawing and a description by Vasari.78 It was a stunning piece of ‘baroque’ illusionist imitation architecture, supported by
twisted columns.
A second, extremely important, ensemble dating from the period immediately after the Council of Trent belongs to the Oratorio del Gonfalone
in Rome (1568–77; fig. 24).79 A group of at least eight painters completed
this fresco cycle of the Passion of Christ in a single space, consisting of two
registers, one above the other. Scenes from the Passion are accompanied
by prophets and sibyls, and by the Virgin Mary. The lower register incorporates monumental Solomonic columns. The Last Supper, meanwhile, is
situated in a building with twisted columns that recede into the distance.
The Passion, the Resurrection and the Eucharist are key elements in the
story of the Salvation: death, rebirth and redemption establish the re-creating dynamism of the Christian cosmos. The space becomes a new Temple of Solomon under the aegis of the New Covenant. Salvation through
Christ makes possible the new and eternal life, leading the faithful on the
Tuzi 2002, p. 162, ill. 17.
L’Oratorio del Gonfalone a Roma. Il ciclo cinquecentesco della Passione di Cristo, ed. Maria
Grazia Bernardini, [Milan:] Credito Artigiano, [2002], with a complete series of illustrations and
78 79 52
road to the Heavenly Jerusalem.80 This is evoked artistically by the twisted
columns and by the prominent fresco of King Solomon above the entrance.
A third example from monumental mural art is provided by the Life of
St Susanna by Baldassare Croce (1558–1628) in the church of the same name
in Rome (1598–1600) (fig. 25). The scenes are presented as t­ rompe-l’œil
tapestries, suspended between sharply twisting, highly dynamic Solomonic columns, finished with garlands and cartouches.81 Rubens reprised this
structure in his Eucharist cycle (figs. 1 and 26).
Rubens lived in Rome for a total of almost three and a half years (1601;
early 1606–October 1608). Given his fascination for Italian and classical
art, it is safe to assume that he visited and studied a great many sites during that period. He certainly knew the Colonna Santa in St Peter’s and
an antique helical column in the Trinità dei Monti church in Rome; the
tapestries of the Acts of the Apostles, woven in Flanders from cartoons by
Raphael; the fresco cycles in the Gonfalone (1568–77) and Santa Susanna
(1598–1600) churches; and possibly also Giulio Romano’s fresco in the Vatican. Rubens was likewise definitely familiar with the Palazzo Ducale in
Mantua, the palace of his patron, Vincenzo Gonzaga. One or more of these
works could have given him a certain knowledge of the Solomonic column. There were also sixteenth-century drawings and surveys of columns
of this kind.82
It is claimed erroneously in
the Rubens literature that the
twisted column was rare in sixteenth-century art 83 – other than
in Raphael and Giulio Romano
– and that it needed more than
a century to establish itself as a
motif in European art. It is true
that for the Baroque these columns were ideal, dynamic visual
formulas, and that they became
a frequent component of the
style’s formal repertoire. However, many theoreticians and
scholarly artists were already exploring the mystery of Solomon’s
Temple and of ‘Solomonic’ columns in the sixteenth century.
Rubens, who was well informed
about the art-theoretical debates
of his time, will have had no difFig. 26 After Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640),
ficulty in keeping up with this
The Triumph of the Eucharist, 1626. Tapestry.
Madrid, Descalzas Reales
area. He was certainly aware of
the sixteenth-century debates
surrounding the architecture of the Temple of Solomon and he incorporated Solomonic columns in several of his compositions. Rubens was by no
means a pioneer, however, in his use of the motif.
He began to use twisted columns in his Italian period. They play an
important role in the Eucharist tapestry cycle (1625–27) destined for the
80 Barbara Wisch, ‘Memorie di teatro o rappresentazioni teatrali? Le rappresentazioni del Gonfalone
nel Cinquecento e le scene ‘teatrali’ del suo Oratorio’, in L’Oratorio del Gonfalone a Roma 2002 (n. 79),
p. 57: ‘Con la costruzione dell’Oratorio come il tempio di Gerusalemme, unita alla Passione di Cristo,
si voleva celebrare il Nuovo Tempio e la Nuova Alleanza nella Nuova Gerusalemme. In questo modo
I confratelli [= the fraternity founded in 1264] riconfermavano le loro devozioni penitenziali imitatio
Christi della Settimana Santa e la celebrazione della presenza di Cristo nell’Eucarestia insieme a
molte altre significative attività rituali e filantropiche.’
81 Charles Scribner iii , ‘Sacred Architecture: Rubens’s Eucharist Tapestries’, The Art Bulletin 57
(1975), p. 526; David Ganz, ‘Rückeroberung des Zentrums, Anschluss an die Vergangenheit und
institutionelle Selbstdarstellung’, in Konfessionen im Kirchenraum. Dimensionen des Sakralbaus
in der frühen Neuzeit, Korb 2007, pp. 263–83, esp. pp. 271–76.
82 Tuzi 2002, p. 90, ill. 27 (Florence, Uffizi, no. 1811 A).
Anthony Blunt, ‘Rubens and Architecture’, The Burlington Magazine 119 (1977), pp. 609–19, esp.
613: ‘they were rarely used – in either architecture or painting – between the moment when Raphael
introduced them in the Healing of the Lame Man – to symbolize the Temple – and the time more
than a century later when Bernini established their popularity by incorporating eight of them in
the decoration of the piers of St Peter’s and using the form for the colossal bronze columns of his
83 55
Fig. 27 Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640),
Portrait of Alethea Talbot, Countess of
Arundel. Munich, Alte Pinakothek
Fig. 28 Peter Paul Rubens
(1577–1640), Portrait
of Deborah Kip, Wife of
Sir Balthasar Gerbier, and
Her Children. Washington,
National Gallery of Art
Convent of the Descalzas Reales in Madrid. Rubens’s tapestries probably
hung in two registers, one above the other, like the frescoes in the Gonfalone church, which the master must have known.84 He reversed the order
of columns, however, preferring the more dynamic spiral pillars for the
upper register. It is no coincidence that Bernini chose this type of column
shortly afterwards for his gigantic canopy or ciborium (c. 1626–33) above
the principal altar of St Peter’s in Rome.85 Eight of the ‘original’ columns
were placed in the crossing of the basilica, turning the principal altar and
its immediate surroundings into the New Temple of Solomon and the gateway to the Heavenly Jerusalem.86 The Temple of Solomon was viewed as
the ‘prefiguration’ of the Church, which itself prefigured the Heavenly Jerusalem. The tapestries of the Eucharist cycle were a Christian reworking
of the eleven curtains that adorned the Holy of Holies in the Jewish Tabernacle. The Solomonic columns were the iconographic key to this meaning. Their associations with cosmic forces of creation and growth served,
moreover, to heighten the arcane character of the space,87 which was governed by the Divine Body.
Four columns of this type, decorated with putti and vines, can be seen
in Rubens’s Portrait of Alethea Talbot, Countess of Arundel (fig. 27). Some
commentators have interpreted them as an allusion to the countess’s
Catholic sympathies: ‘In the iconography of the Counter-Reformation
the Temple of Solomon was a well-known symbol of the Church and the
Eucharist, and the sacrament was also symbolized by angels with vine
tendrils.’88 Rubens’s Portrait of Deborah Kip, Wife of Sir Balthasar Gerbier,
and Her Children (fig. 28) offers a highly distinctive treatment. Kip and her
four young children are shown in the open air beneath a canopy supported
by two flesh-coloured caryatids standing on dolphins whose spiral bodies
See L’oratorio del Gonfalone 2002 (n. 79).
Irvin Lavin, Bernini and the Crossing of St Peter’s, New York 1968.
86 Nora De Poorter, The Eucharist Series (Corpus Rubenianum Ludwig Burchard), Brussels: Arcade,
1978, pp. 173–74.
87 Scribner 1975 (n. 81), pp. 519–28.
88 Hans Vlieghe, Rubens’s Portraits of Identified Sitters Painted in Antwerp (Corpus Rubenianum
Ludwig Burchard), New York: Harvey Miller, s.d., pp. 48–52, no. 72.
84 85 56
form the columns.89 They are freighted here with associations of fertility,
vital force and protection.
Rubens was plainly fascinated by the Solomonic column; as a know­
ledgeable artist and connoisseur of antiquity, he will certainly have been
aware of its connotations and affective associations, as were the antiquarians, architects and scholars of his time. His fascination for ‘twisting/
turning’ went further, in the shape of volutes and twisted and S-shaped
elements90 – an ‘obsession’ Rubens
shared with his Baroque contemporaries. It was most likely not a conscious, symbolically
charged choice, but a form ‘chosen’ impulsively and collectively:
Rubens shared the antiquarian,
architectural and iconographic
­preferences of his time. This is not
to say, however, that such forms
were ‘empty’ or ‘meaningless’.
Like other stylistic elements, they
were ‘invested’ with emotion. This
unconscious affect, attached to a
form, prompts a culture to ‘choose’
to make that form a fixed element
of its style. There are countless exFig. 29 Wenceslas Coebergher, Buttress in the
amples of this. The facades of hunshape of a double volute, 1627. Scherpenheuvel
dreds of Flemish Baroque houses
(Montaigu), Basilica. Photograph: kik-irpa
are topped with volutes, providing
the higher registers with a double
and opposing curl. The same applies to church facades in Italy, the Southern Netherlands (fig. 29), the Iberian countries,91 Catholic Central Europe
Frances Huemer, Portraits (Corpus Rubenianum Ludwig Burchard, 19), Brussels: Arcade, s.d.,
pp. 120–27, no. 14.
90 Blunt 1977, pp. 614 and 617.
89 58
Fig. 30 Anonymous lace worker,
Altar cloth, 1599. Antwerp,
Museum Mayer van den Bergh.
Photograph: kik-irpa
Fig. 31 Scipione Pulzone da Gaeta (1544–1598),
Portrait of a Lady with Two Children. Vienna,
and Latin America.92 When the master-builders of the Baroque topped a
house or church facade with opposing volutes, or placed an altar or other
See, for example, J.J. Martín González, ‘Avance de una tipología del retablo barroco’,
in IMAFRONTE 1987–89, nos. 3–5, pp. 111–55, passim.
92 See, for example, Martha Fernández, Cristóbal de Medina Vargas y la arquitectura salomónica
en la Nueva España, Mexico: iie/unam , 2002; Marco Díaz, ‘El barroco salomónico en Puebla:
los retablos’, in Simposio Internazionale sul Barocco Latino Americano. Atti del convegno, Roma,
21–24 aprile 1980, ed. E. Clementelli et al., Rome 1982, pp. 547–58; El mundo de las catedrales
novohispanas, ed. Montserrat Galí Boadella, Puebla (Mexico): icsh-buap, 2002; Santiago Sebastián,
‘La significación salomónica del templo de Huejotzingo (México)’, in Traza y baza, 1973, pp. 75–88;
Manuel González Galvan, ‘Barroco salomónico’, Artes de México 15 (1968), no. 106, pp. 28–31.
sacred structure (an exposition throne, for instance, or a monstrance) atop
one or two pairs of Solomonic columns, they did so with the goal – drawing
unconsciously on very old traditions – of framing their work in the context
of fundamental, life-giving energies. The writings of esoteric scholars in
the Baroque also show – through the prints they contain – how the spiral
form played an important role in the visualization or conceptualization of
their worldview. This was not the advanced scientific vision; they were
indebted to older holistic traditions – much older, even – that continued to
view the world as a cosmic, breathing organism (figs. 30 and 31).
Baroque tapestries with Solomonic columns
We also know of three monumental tapestry or wall-hangings cycles from
the Baroque,93 the composition of which is structured using Solomonic
columns. The first is the Triumph of the Eucharist, after designs by Rubens,
which we have already discussed. The second is a relatively unknown cycle in Santiago de Compostela. King Philip iv presented ten wall-hangings
to the cathedral chapter in the Holy Year of 1655, for the ‘royal’ chapel of
St James. They are monumental silk and gold embroideries, the six largest
of which show a canopy supported by Solomonic columns, and the four
smaller ones a portico with two similar columns.94 The cycle was hung
from 10 June to 25 July, the Apostle’s feast day. The iconography of these
large works consisted of a mythical history of the world since the Golden
The third cycle, almost equally unknown, comes from the Convent of
the Descalzas Reales in Madrid and is now in the National Archaeological
93 There are three large embroidered wall-hangings in Metz – originally from a synagogue – with
porticos supported by Solomonic columns. To judge from the images, they date from the seventeenth
century. Schweitzer 1963, p. 143, and ill. pp. 140–41.
94 Miguel Taín Guzmán, ‘Las colgaduras de Felipe iv ’, in Santiago. La esperanza (exh. cat.), Santiago
de Compostela 1999, pp. 496–99; R. Yzquierdo Peiró, ‘Serie de colgaduras napoletanas donadas a la
catedral de Santiago por Felipe iv ’, in Santiago y la monarquía de España (1504–1788) (exh. cat.),
Santiago 2004, pp. 330–33.
Fig. 32 Gianlorenzo Bernini (1598–1680),
Loggia della Lancia, c. 1628–40. Vatican,
Basilica of St Peter
Fig. 33 Anonymous, Italian, 17th century,
The Christ Child under a Baldacchino with
eight Salomonic columns [London, Christie’s,
8 November 2007, no. 161]
Museum.95 Each part shows tame and wild animals (bear, lion [2x], monkey,
poodle, greyhound, leopard, ram, stag], in the manner of sixteenth-century
Flemish tapestries showing wild or fantastic animals in rugged natural settings. The spiral was an appropriate element in iconography of this kind,
evoking elemental forces such as those of nature. While it could be a literal
element of the body – a curly tail, for instance – it was also inherent to natural and supernatural forces (in polytheism: sea creatures in particular; in
Christianity: demons, ghosts, etc.) (figs. 32–33).
95 J. Sánchez Amores, ‘Las colgaduras bordadas del Convento de Santa Teresa de Jesús, de Madrid, en
el Museo Arqueológico Nacional’, Boletín del Museo Arqueológico Nacional, 1985, pp. 177–93; there are
also two illustrations in Historia del arte hispánico, 4, Barcelona 1945, pp. 632–33.
South of the Mediterranean: North African cultures
The spiral was already a powerful symbol of the universe’s unimaginable
creation process, even before the pre-Socratic philosophers. The Greek
philosopher Leucippus (c. 500 bce) and Democritus, who was influenced
by him, believed that a gigantic spiral arose from a mass of atoms, which
had split off from the infinite and which revolved in an immense vortex,
out of which things came into being. The spiral was not exclusive, however, to the Mediterranean or European imagination: it served in cultures
of the most varied kind as an imageless image of vital energy, procreative
power, pregnancy and birth. The double, opposing spiral is a millennia-old
motif expressing the dynamism of creation and becoming.
The spiral and the spiral-shaped whirlwind were associated in China
and Japan with the benevolent dragon, an emblem of positive, procreative
forces on the female, or rather matrixial side.96 In India, spiral seashells
were hung and red spirals painted on the doors of rooms in which a woman was about to give birth;97 the vortex and whirlwind were symbols from
India to Scandinavia of the fundamental energy from which life would
spring. And not only in Indo-European regions: these symbols are found in
other cultural areas too.98
It is as if archaic societies unconsciously sensed that the core dynamic
of the evolutionary process is a double spiral, as has been confirmed by
scientific research into the dna double helix. This conviction existed in
Africa traditionally – centuries and perhaps even millennia before the discoveries of the geneticists. The double spiral is a central ‘image’ of African
cosmogonies, as encountered in therapeutic brotherhoods in West and
North Africa. Examples include the widespread societies of ‘smiths’ and
musicians who are masters, from Morocco to Libya, of the healing trance.
They are known in Morocco as Gnaoua, in Algeria as Diwan or Bori, and
in Tunisia as Stambali. These ‘archaic’ cultures have developed a rich mythology around the double spiral.
MacKenzie 1926, pp. 61, 72–73, 79–83.
MacKenzie 1926, p. 111; see also pp. 68–71.
98 MacKenzie 1926 gives a great many examples, but in a disorganized and dilettantish manner.
The black brotherhoods of North Africa – partly originating and drawing from Sub-Saharan cultures – embody an encyclopaedia of cosmogonic
knowledge in their therapeutic dance rituals (lila or ‘night’). These rituals
are devoted in specific terms to healing individual patients suffering from
a psychological disorder caused by a spirit. The disease will be cured – albeit not permanently – by a cataleptic trance. This rebirth requires a mystic journey through the cosmogony. It is based on the explosion of the ‘first
star’ (also given other names) in a single, ungraspable instant, rendered
more or less comprehensible to human beings through ten ‘dimensions’.
This is a highly complex and non-linear matter, which it is not possible to
outline in the present context. We refer instead to the brilliant studies of
Viviana Pâques.99 We would simply note that the qibla, the new apparition
of the primal star or world-egg, splits into two: the new qibla below and the
new zahra above. This split takes the form of a double whirlwind, turning in
opposite directions, which is also the movement of the world tree.
Mediterranean and European healing dances like the tarantella, the
sword-dance, the Mummers’ Play, and so on, broke down into the same
three phases we find in the gnaoua lila: ‘death’ – tribulations – rebirth. The
suffering soul made a cosmic journey throughout the year via a number of
stars. We find something similar in the gnaoua lila, as a reprise of the journey of the cosmos and the soul. The universe developed – to understand
this more clearly, we should envisage a mystic journey – from the South, the
akhira or Other World, Night, the ‘Black’. This reality, fertilized by the Milky
Way, gave birth to the East, the qibla, to the North, and to our universe, the
douniya. This ‘movement’ occurs by means of two intersecting whirlwinds,
represented by the Milky Way and the Pleiades, conceived in turn as the
Cosmic Man with outstretched limbs. The soul of the dead person makes a
similar journey, but obviously in the opposite direction, as it departs from
our world, the terminus of the cosmogony. The soul rises to the North and
then travels to the South, the akhira or ‘Other World’, before ascending back
to the East. It can then be reborn in our world. This is why the lila dance ritual takes place at night, so that it can end in the East, i.e. at dawn. The dancer’s
96 97 62
99 Pâques 1964 (2nd edn. 1995) and Pâques 1992.
soul can then return to life. In so doing, it follows the Milky Way, the mystic
tide of the three life-giving principles, water, milk and blood.
The double-spiral/whirlwind is a crucial image in North African cosmology. According to gnaoua cosmology, the rise and fall of the divine
breath governs the universe; it causes the ‘germination’ and ‘birth’ of the
universe. This rise and fall is what orders the cosmos. We may envisage
this reality ‘geometrically’ as two conical spirals (in opposing directions),
standing one on the other like the two halves of an hourglass.100 This double
wind blew up after the sacrifice of the mythic Smith – a manifestation of
the demiurge or creator of the world; at human level, he is the bringer of
culture. The double whirlwind ‘is’ also the Milky Way and the Pleiades.101
The creation of the world ends in the tenth ‘state’: the qibla, the mystic
Mountain of the East; it is then like a new world-egg or the new moon.
It splits in two: the new qibla below and the new ‘Shining’ (zahra), materialized in the star Sirius. This division was effected by two whirlwinds,
revolving in opposite directions.102 To form a comprehensible image of the
therapeutic journey of the soul, it might be conceived as a figure eight, as
two superimposed diamonds or, three-dimensionally, as a double spiral.
This is how souls move until the end of times determined by God. It is
symbolized and experienced in the lila, the night of transformation. The
trance represents dying and being reborn, passing through the gateway
into a new existence.103
In North Africa, the world-tree is split ‘vertically’: there is a ‘tree from
below’ and a ‘tree from above’, each of which has two further ‘levels’. At
the same time, the tree is three-fold or split into three, which can be visualized as a trident. The European tradition also saw the cosmic tree as
double, but ‘as a double mountain’ that forms its crown. Two lines intersect
one another here. Together they form an X or a double drum in the shape
of an hourglass (very important in North Africa too). We find this ‘manifestation’ of the tree in medieval symbolic miniatures of the ‘Cosmic Man’,
spreading out his limbs – a composition that also underlies the famous
drawing by Leonardo da Vinci. This tree likewise incorporates a double
spiral – like the double whirlwind in the African traditions – which led in
the late sixteenth century to the anthropomorphic facade with two volutes
(decorative elements shaped like snailshells).
This worldview is distinguished by a particular vision of time, which
strongly recalls contemporary science. The further we distance ourselves
from our sensory world, towards the higher spheres, the more time is compressed to a ‘point’. Time also originated from a point: from the explo­
sion of the first star. In the gaze of the all-knowing deity, the history of
the universe is no more than an instant, in which it came into being, existed and ‘died’. Time is a concession to the limited scope of our perception. God knows no passage of time. Cosmic history is compressed into
that one, indivisible instant, which is inaccessible to the human mind. The
cosmic instant is thus conceived of as a succession of ten ‘states’ or ‘generations’, following on from the divine self-sacrifice. And one image that was
deemed suitable to make this eternally complex process perceptible was
the double spiral. The S design is inherent cross-culturally to many cosmogonies.104 In some, very rare instances, the cosmogony discussed here
appears in diagrammatic form in weaving, in a unique kilim from El Guettar (Gafsa, Tunisia), for instance.105
This double spiral was expressed in archaic domestic weaving by
opposing zigzags on either side of the fabric: on Tunisian kilims (figs.
This universe can be envisaged as three-fold: a ‘first star’ in the ‘middle’, flanked by two others.
The first is like an egg containing all the seeds of the universe. It is like a womb, the ‘first ancestor’
or the ‘principal star’. This three-foldness can also be pictured as a person with two arms/hands,
as a male sex organ, or as a man with two women. The ‘egg’ is half white, half red, with a black seed
like a snake. It has exploded, throwing four elements out into space. Pâques 1964 (1995), p. 47.
Pâques 1992, p. 134.
102 One came out of the Darkness (the ‘forest’), fertilized the egg and laid its black seed (iron) in it.
The other broke the egg open and released the snake inside. One half ‘rose’, one half fell. This double
whirlwind caused the universe to rise to the heavenly jujube; the ‘fire from below’ set the tree alight.
It is the niya, the divine will that is discharged in this way in an evening fire. Pâques 1992, pp. 116–17.
103 See Paul Vandenbroeck, De kleuren van de geest. Dans en trance in Afro-Europese tradities,
Antwerp: kmska , 1997.
100 64
104 105 MacKenzie 1926.
Vandenbroeck 1997, p. 172; Vandenbroeck 2000, p. 175.
34–35),106 mergoums107 and carpets,108 for instance; in knotted Moroccan
­carpets;109 and in Anatolian kilims.110 In some cases, the zigzag becomes a
meander,111 similar to its Greek equivalent. Sometimes too the entire field is
taken up with quivering spirals/zigzags (fig. 36);112 at others a large zigzag
runs through the central axis of the fabric (fig. 37).113
The zigzag is likewise linked iconographically with the snake – an image of life and death, of medicine and venom. In North Africa and other
Muslim countries, the snake is also called hayya or ‘life’.114 It is the genius
loci, the ‘energy’ of a particular site, on innumerable occasions. It appears
as such on stelae from the Roman period, or else it is the animal linked
to local Muslim saints (in which the figure of the saint is an ‘Islamicized’
version of a much earlier snake cult).115 Where the saint (plus snake) is venerated for the sake of fertility, women sometimes perform whirling dances,
as an embodiment of the procreative force.116 The practice of snake-charming, from Morocco to India, is an attempt to control (the embodiment of )
uncontrollable forces. ‘Snake worship’ dates back a long way, incidentally,
Fig. 34 Anonymous Tunisian
weaver, Matmata, 19th century,
Kilim with double zigzag/
spiral. [Formerly collection
of the author]. Photograph:
the author
Fig. 35 Anonymous Tunisian
weaver, Central Tunisia, 20th
century, Kilim with double
zigzag/spiral. Whereabouts
unknown. Photograph:
the author
Fig. 36 Anonymous Tunisian
weaver, El Regeyeb, 20th
century. Kilim with multiple
zigzags/spirals. Whereabouts
unknown. Photograph:
the author
Fig. 37 Anonymous Iranian
weaver, 19th or 20th century,
Gabbeh with double zigzag/
spiral. [Formerly collection
George Bornet]
Vandenbroeck 2000, pp. 129 (Ghoumrassen), 179 (Matmata).
Vandenbroeck 2000, pp. 95 (saddle rug from Gabès), 101 (Oudref: solid, double zigzag on either
side of the central axis, consisting of a chain of diamonds), 124 (Beni Zid), 126 (Oudref: double zigzag
on either side), 131 bottom (Ouled Chraïtia), 197 (Oudref ).
108 Vandenbroeck 2000, p. 176 (carpet from the Sfax region; note the extremely narrow borders).
109 Vandenbroeck 2000, pp. 27 (Alf’eja), 84 (Arhouatim), 108 (Mzinida, Youssoufiya), 121 (Guentour),
127 (Guentour), 127 bottom (Guentour: on either side of the central axis), 138 top and bottom
(Rehamna), 164 (Rehamna), 166 (Rehamna carpet, once in Musée des Oudaïas, Rabat: on either side
of the central motif ), 194 (Rehamna), 208 (Mrabtine, Haouz from Marrakech), 264 (Telouet).
110 Yanni Petsopoulos, Les kilims. Tapis tissés et brodés du Moyen-Orient, Fribourg: Office du Livre,
1979, ill. 150–153 (Konya); it is probably no coincidence that this region was also the ‘birthplace’ of the
‘Whirling Dervishes’ of ‘Mevlana’ (i.e. Jalalleddin el Rumi).
111 Vandenbroeck 2000, pp. 87 (kilim Gafsa), 122 (kilim Sidi Bou Zid, Tunisia), 127 bottom (carpet
Guentour), 156 (carpet El ‘Ararsha, Morocco), 168 (carpet Aït bou Ishaouen: double meander on
either side).
112 Vandenbroeck 2000, p. 165 (kilim from El Regeyeb, Tunisia).
113 Vandenbroeck 2000, p. 126 (mergoum from Oudref, Tunisia).
114 Balaji Mundker, ‘Hayya in Islamic Thought’, Muslim World 70 (1980), pp. 213–25.
115 Probst-Biraben 1933.
116 Probst-Biraben 1933, pp. 291–93, mentions a number of Algerian pilgrimage places. For Tunisia:
M. Sicart and L. Poinssot, ‘Survivances en Tunisie du culte du serpent’, Revue tunisienne, 1935.
For North Africa: L. Joléaud, ‘Les animaux totem nord-africains’, Revue africaine, 1935, pp. 325–48.
106 107 Fig. 38 Anonymous
weaver, Mzinida, Morocco,
19th century, Carpet with
bou-‘arrouj motif
Fig. 39 Anonymous Tunisian
artist, Bouja and bou-‘arrouj
tattoos on forehead of
a young lady
as does the zigzag motif.117 In North Africa, the zigzag motif (related to the
snake, the spiral, the helical column and the helical shell) or the double
zigzag (related to the double spiral) was also called bou ‘arrouj, literally:
‘with (or: from) a slant, lameness’ (figs. 38 and 39).118 The word derives
from the root ‘-r-j, alluding to climbing up in a diagonal movement, limping or walking haltingly. The connotations are: ‘slanting, crooked, turning
away’, ‘not straight’, ‘climbing/descending’, ‘moving back and forth, striking’, ‘winding’, ‘having a bent for something’. Bou ‘arrouj is ‘that which has
a bent for something’, ‘with a tendency towards’, ‘not walking straight’.
The libido is very much bou ‘arrouj. The motif was freighted with ambigu­
ous thoughts. It was often accompanied – not necessarily literally, but in
the popular imagination – with bouj(a), a tattoo motif like an inverted V
with ‘barbs’,119 frequently applied between the eyebrows. Bouj wa bou-’arrouj referred to female attractiveness and the powerful urge aroused as a
result. Two zigzags with their points towards each other or intersecting –
i.e. the rectilinear and two-dimensional version of the spiral – could also
be bou ‘arrouj ; in this case, the motif was called ‘open and close’, ‘lock’ (amrgoul).120 Another name was foum el kersha, ‘mouth of the belly’,121 referring
to the genitals. In the ‘free style’ of weaving (as opposed to tattooing) the
bou ‘arrouj was formed on several occasions from chaotically placed, quivering lines, as if to stress their compulsive character.122
Even the basic act of spinning thread – the essential preparation for
any form of textile art – is carried out in an S or Z-shaped spiral.123 The
double spiral (in opposite directions) is inextricably linked with weaving.
For thousands of years, the thread spun in this way has been a symbol of
the course of life, spun out or cut off by supernatural decree, by the Fates,
for instance, who were represented as spinsters. In the everyday practice
of weaving, the crossing of warp and weft gives birth to the ‘soul’ (rouh).
Spinning and weaving are part of and models for the creation of life.
The spiral and double spiral decorate the left and right-hand borders
of the fabric on countless occasions. They are related, compositionally and
semantically, with the Solomonic columns on either side of Baroque buildings and structures.
117 Balaji Mundker, The Cult of the Serpent: an Interdisciplinary Survey of its Manifestations, Albany
(ny): State University of New York Press, 1983.
118 Herber 1948, esp. pp. 47–48.
119 Herber 1948, pp. 49–51. For the positioning: pp. 35 (tattoo on the chin), 48 (forearm; foot;
120 Herber 1948, p. 49.
121 Herber 1948, p. 53.
122 Vandenbroeck 2000, p. 111 (Mtaguil carpet).
123 Hugo Horwitz, ‘Die Drehbewegung in ihrer Bedeutung für die Entwicklung der materiellen
Kultur. 7. Spinnen’, Anthropos 29 (1934), pp. 111–19; Hermann Grothe, Bilder und Studien zur
Geschichte vom Spinnen, Weben, Nähen, Berlin 1875.
The sound spiral
The spiral did not only have a visual dimension, but an auditory one too.124
Helical shells or conches have been used as wind instruments since prehistoric times. They produce a deep, hollow, ‘rolling’ tone, a sound that is experienced as a sonorous version of the primordial spiral. Consequently, the
blowing of shells like this has been part since prehistory of rites relating to
creation, renewal/rebirth and marriage (creation of new life).125
In the Christian context, these instruments were used until the twentieth century in relation to Corpus Christi (the Eucharist as divine and
mystic body, source of creation), the Holy Sepulchre and the Resurrection.
Conch shells were blown at the Corpus Christi festival in Cuzco126 and in
other places as part of the Holy Sepulchre liturgy before Easter.127 They are
linked in these instances with death and resurrection and with the exalted
body of Christ.
The Greeks called the labyrinth kochlioeides topos, ‘shell-shaped place’;
seashells were called ‘sea-labyrinths’.128 Helical shells played an important
role in many cultures from prehistoric times as wind instruments and as
a (sub)symbolic motif. We find similar twists in iconographic motifs like
MacKenzie 1926, passim: the spiral of the ear and the auditory dimension of the spiral.
Jackson 1916.
126 As this writer witnessed in person in 1991.
127 Salvatore 1989, p. 131 (examples from Genoa and Chieri).
128 Antologia palatina, vi , 224, see Salvatore 1989, p. 125.
124 125 69
the frequently shell-shaped, helical horn of plenty.129 The helical conch130
(strombus) had an important symbolic function as early as the Palaeolithic
era131 – as, incidentally, did the thorny oyster (spondylus). Both shells occur in many cultures, including the pre-Columbian civilizations of South
America,132 beginning with the Chavín culture,133 and of Central America.134
The so-called Smiling God of the Chavín culture, for instance, holds as his
sole attributes a spondylus (‘thorny oyster’) in his left hand and a strombus
(‘conch’) in his right. Artefacts representing or made from the two shells are
found in many ‘Early Horizon’ cultures.135 It is safe to say that the spondylus
is an emanation of the ‘nameless motif’136 (and is hence associated with the
matrix, with ‘haptic seeing’, with the threatening-killing/saving gaze, and
with uterine forces) and of ‘bi-valvar’ potential (‘open-and-close’) and that
strombus belongs in the ‘spiral’ context. Both obviously have their mollusc
character as an important creator of meaning. Spondylus can also be highly
toxic temporarily.137 Its spines and ‘teeth’ make it, moreover, a formidable
creature that can easily translate into an image of strength and protection
(of a soft interior). What is more, and this is remarkable, spondylus possesses a series of light-sensitive sensors (‘eyes’) on the central fold of its
mantel edges. Lethality and toxicity, strength, relentless protection of the
interior, and ‘eyes’ (gaze) combined to make spondylus a creature freighted
with symbolism. Both shells also occur in important symbolic constructions, such as the kula of the Trobriand Islands, in which beads were made
from spondylus. This was done during ceremonial sessions at which the
strombus was blown.138
Both shells belong, moreover, to a group of creatures to which many
cultures attribute special powers. There is probably more to this than simple imagination: marine biologists have been fascinated for decades now
by the ‘skills’ displayed by these marine animals139 – skills greater than
might be expected from such ‘primitive’ creatures. In possible recognition
of this, many cultures have reserved a significant place for these molluscs
in their oldest mythography. They played an important symbolic role, for
instance, in the scenography of power and economic exchange. This does
not detract, however, from their more primary spectrum of significance:
associated with the female and with procreative power. ‘Male’ power was
supposed to ‘feed’ on the female side. ‘Money’ – in the form, for example,
of the cowry shells found all round the world – was moreover often viewed
as ‘female’ ( just as women were ‘traded’ in many cultures, as Lévi-Strauss
noted). Spondylus possessed symbolic and monetary capital,140 richly invested with positive values/powers. Vulva, volute and shell (along with
other ‘haptic’ shapes like the comb, the toothed rock and the pine-cone)
were traditionally interwoven in a subsymbolic complex. This made the
shell the perfect emblem for Venus/Aphrodite141 and similar goddesses.
129 See, for example, a painted seventeenth-century antependium (Hoogstraten, Town Hall; kik-
irpa B25153).
The Dutch word for conch or whelk shell is kinkhoorn: kink = turn or bend; the ‘kinkhoorn’ is
therefore a helical shape.
131 H. Fischer, ‘Note sur les coquilles recoltées par M. E. Piette dans la grotte du Mas-d’Azil (Ariège)’,
L’anthropologie 7 (1896), pp. 633–52.
132 Julio Tello, El strombus en el arte Chavín, Lima 1937; J. Davidson, ‘El spondylus en la cosmología
Chimú’, in Revista del museo nacional de Lima, 45, 1981, pp. 75–87.
133 K. Lamprell, Spondylus. Spiny Oyster Shells of the World, Bathurst nsw (Australia): Robert Brown,
134 Leonardo López Luján, ‘Peces y moluscos en el libro undecimo del Códice Florentino’, in La fauna
en el Templo Mayor, ed. O. Polaco, Mexico 1991, pp. 213–63; Lourdes Suárez Diez, ‘Las conchas en los
códices: una proposición metodológica’, América indígena 54 (1995), pp. 41–52.
135 Allison Paulsen, ‘The Thorny Oyster and the Voice of God: Spondylus and Strombus in Andean
Prehistory’, American Antiquity 39 (1974), pp. 597–607, esp. pp. 601, 603; this study poses the
question ‘why were spondylus and strombus singled out to express so many layers of sociocultural
signification?’, but seeks a common-sense Anglo-Saxon answer and practical arguments. Also:
D. Sandweiss and M. C. Rodriguez, ‘Moluscos marinos en la prehistoria peruana’, Boletín de Lima
75 (1991), pp. 55–63; Wachakaresai: la historia que duerme bajo tierra, Caracas: Licores Unidas, 1985;
Vanessa Drake Moraga, Animal myth and magic. Images from pre-columbian textiles, Larkspur: Ololo
Press, 2005.
136 Vandenbroeck 2010 [= 2012].
137 Pilsbury 1996, esp. p. 318.
130 70
Bronislaw Malinowski, Argonauts of the Western Pacific, New York: E.P. Dutton, 1961, pp. 367–75.
See, for example, H. Watson, ‘On the Central Nervous System of Spondylus and What Happens to
a Headless Mollusc’s Brain’, Proceedings of the Malacological Society of London 19 (1930), pp. 31–36.
140 Pilsbury 1996, p. 334: ‘Spondylus was critical in the development and maintenance of ritual,
economic, and political power …’ Also: A. Mester, ‘Marine Shell Symbolism in Andean Culture’,
in Proceedings of the 1986 Shell Bead Conference. Selected Papers, ed. C.F. Hayes iii , Rochester (ny):
Rochester Museum, 1989, pp. 157–67.
141 Waldemar Deonna, ‘Aphrodite à la coquille’, Revue archéologique, 1917; Salvatore 1989, pp. 123–91:
‘Anadyomene. La tromba di conchiglia e la nascita di Afrodite’.
138 139 71
Fig. 40 Anonymous Roman, Tunisia,
2nd–4th century, Sea monster with spiral tail.
Sousse, Archaeological Museum.
Photograph: the author
Fig. 42 Anonymous
Roman, Tunisia,
2nd–4th century, Nereid
on a dolphin. Sousse,
Archaeological Museum.
Photograph: the author
Fig. 43 Anonymous
Roman, Tunisia,
2nd–4th century,
Double spiral. Sousse,
Archaeological Museum.
Photograph: the author
Fig. 41 Anonymous Roman, Tunisia,
2nd–4th century, Nereid on a hippocampus.
El Djem, Archaeological Museum.
Photograph: the author
The spiral shell was not only associated with sexuality, however: helical
shells were used in a wide variety of cultures in initiation rituals (incorporating a symbolic death and rebirth), in funerary rites (death-rebirth), and
in rites associated with fertility and new life.142
Artists have reused these underlying meanings unconsciously too, as
in the Sleeping Shepherd by Samuel Palmer (1805–1881). The eponymous
shepherd is shown sleeping in a totally unnaturalistic hut, the wide opening
of which is partially covered by a ‘theatre curtain’ and partly by a tree with
leaves resembling an immense piece of lacework. A dog with puppies lies
alongside him. The dawn light (Eos) picks out the curtain and a half-concealed wicker object resembling a gigantic spiral seashell behind it. This
object – the shepherd’s dream-desire – is the actual centre point.143 A century later (1949), the highly individual ‘Surrealist’ Rachel Baes (1912–1983)
painted The Knot, in which a young girl stands with closed eyes in front
of a helical shell balanced on its point, touching its uppermost extremity
and experiencing this ‘haptic’ icon.144 It is no coincidence that classical and
later (from the Renaissance onwards) iconography developed the motif of
curly sea creatures blowing on helical shells. The ever-changing forces of
nature – linked with the primordial waters, polymorphous, protean and
constantly re-emerging in new forms that evoke this creational transformation – also announced their nature and powers sonorously (figs. 40–43).
The impulse to twist
The ‘logarithmic’ impulse to twist is related to the spiral.145 A pear-shaped
motif, the uppermost, tapering part of which ‘twists away’, features on
countless occasions in the textile art of the Middle and Near East. This
­boteh motif appears in Kashmir scarves, for instance, but also in carpets
Salvatore 1989, pp. 127–34: ‘conchiglia come tromba’. Useful earlier publications: Gilbert Rouget,
‘Origine et répartition des conques en Asie, Océanie et Amérique’, Comptes rendus sommaires des
séances de l’Institut français d’anthropologie 2 (1944–46); Jackson 1916.
143 Christie’s New York, 27 October 2010, pp. 148–49, no. 57.
144 E.L.T. Mesens (exh. cat.), Ostend, MuZee, 2013, p. 140.
145 Vandenbroeck 2000, pp. 199–200.
142 73
and other textile works. It is an essential motif in many tens of thousands
of fabrics produced in the Middle East. The motif is dynamic like the dolphin, the mammal known in Greek as delfus, a homonym of the word for
‘pregnant’.146 The curving, upward twist of the dolphin’s body is a key
­element of its iconography. The dolphin, perceived as friendly and helpful,
has a dual nature, as it were, being a mammal but living in the sea. Dolphins
have always been invested with favourable, positive values. It is significant
that the French crown prince was known as the dauphin, referring to the
perpetuation of the dynasty. The dolphin’s twist is a uterine association.
The ‘twist’ is important not only as a visual image but as a mental
one too.147 Analogous to all this is the ‘female’ bent for asymmetry; this
is not an absolute asymmetry, however, leading to chaos, but a twisting-away-from-without-abandoning symmetry, towards an unstable balance between the two. This is found in all the world’s domestically centred weaving traditions. The notion of having ‘a bent for’ something is
itself relevant in this context. The bou ‘arrouj mentioned earlier was the
name given in North African weaving and tattoo art to a motif that, along
with other meanings, evoked the idea of a ‘bent for’ or ‘inclination to’.148
This is because bou ‘arrouj also means ‘with lameness’: the limping body,
thrown off to one side, was seen as an ‘image’ of having a ‘bent for’ or
‘inclination to’ something. The ‘twist’ and the almost imperceptible shift
are virtually ungraspable from the point of view of ‘rectilinearity’ and
Fig. 44 Anonymous, c. 2400 bce. Double spiral.
Malta, Tarxien temple complex
Fig. 45 Anonymous, Neolithic. Double
spirals on the Stone of Forfarshire,
the Stone of Orkney and a Scottish
stone sculpture. After MacKenzie 1926,
facing p. 132
The double volute
We primarily know the double volute in the West from the Ionic column,149
which assumed its definitive form in the seventh century bce . It is topped
with a capital with two volutes, curling in opposite directions. The double volute is much older, however. It is already found, for instance, as an
emblem of two complementary energies decorating the threshold of the
Neolithic temple at Tarxien (Malta, c. 2400 bce), and small and large Neolithic and later monuments (figs. 44 and 45). Earlier columns with double
volutes included the ‘Aeolian’ column,150 and the characteristic columns of
the Hittite, Mittani, Urartian (second millennium bce) and other pre-Asiatic cultures.151 The double volute is found in Neolithic and Chalcolithic
pottery152 and proto-historic Cypriot stelae,153 and is a much-loved motif
Walter Andreae, Die Ionische Säule: Bauform oder Symbol?, Berlin: Verlag für Kunstwissenschaft,
1933, is himself already phallocentric in the way he frames the issues: ‘either-or’, while there is
nothing irreconcilable at all between the two possibilities.
150 Rykwert 1996, pp. 269 ff.
151 Rykwert 1996, pp. 274–90.
152 Ibid.
153 Rykwert 1996, pp. 294 ff.
149 F. Pradel, ‘Zur Vorstellung von der Hystera’, Archiv für Religionswissenschaft 12 (1909) (on dolphin
147 Whereas ‘male humour’ tends to pursue a climactic punchline, women’s humour often tends
toward a subtle ‘twist’, which does not elicit a burst of laughter, but an ironic, alienating recognition:
Smack the Pony!
148 Vandenbroeck 2000, ‘Verweven’ chapter and pp. 195 ff; akhellal: p. 221.
146 74
throughout the Levant from the beginning
of the first millennium bce . The motif is
linked very frequently with the ‘palmette’.
There is a connection with the horned skull
of animals (boukranion): if horns, then those
of the goat, ram, ibex and mouflon, not the
bull. Apotropaic use of the skull of the first
group of animals on the roofs of houses,
especially at the corners, occurs until the
twentieth century among the Lur and other
tribes of western Iran.154
The Hathor column in Egypt, with the
two volutes in the goddess’s hair, forms a
link with the female divine manifestation
(fig. 46).155 We find the double volute in a
highly significant manner in the pre-classical plaquettes at Kameiros (Rhodes):156 a
­series of potniai (nature goddesses, rulers
over the wild beasts and other living creatures) with naked breasts (like the Semitic Astarte and Cybele, and the ‘goddesses’
of Knossos, Cyprus and Mycenae) and the
lower body of a bee. They are winged, and
their wings curl above their heads in opposing ­volutes or spirals. Artemis is likewise
depicted as potnia theron on the pre-classical krater by Kleitias and Ergotimos (c. 575–
50 bce): her wings curl in two opposing
The abundant examples of opposing volutes in other continents include Neolithic pottery,157 engraved bone158 and early bronzes159 from China; a grapheme in Old Chinese in the form of two opposing spirals or curls,
tién, meant something like ‘energy flow, lightning, spirit’.160 Opposite vol­
utes are also found in India as architectural elements in the entrances to
The double spiral of the body’s energies
Fig. 46 Anonymous, Egypt,
1st millennium bce,
Double spiral of Hathor
Edith Porada, Ancient Iran: the Art of Pre-Islamic Times, London 1965, p. 75. It is remarkable
that the same symbolism existed in Europe; Flemish and Dutch paintings of the sixteenth and
seventeenth centuries often depict farms and barns displaying an animal’s skull (horse, ...) as
apotropaeon on their roof.
155 Rykwert 1996, pp. 299, 314–15.
156 Robert Laffineur, L’orfèvrerie rhodienne orientalisante, Paris 1978, pp. 51–56 and pls. ii , vi , x , xxii .
154 76
The idea that two spirals turning in opposite directions form life’s ‘axes
of becoming’ is a belief shared by a variety of cultures. The Indian system of Kundalini, the energy axis
around which two opposing spirals coil, Ida and Pingala, is perhaps the most elaborated emanation of this feeling (fig. 47).
The universe – and hence also
humankind – was a manifestation to Indian culture of the action of a primal force with two
‘faces’: Shiva and Shakti. The
first face tends toward that of
‘being’, the ‘male’ principle; the
second toward that of ‘becomFig. 47 Kundalini: body axis with double
Carl Hentze, Mythes et symboles lunaires.
energy spiral
Chine ancienne, civilisations anciennes de
l’Asie, peuples limitrophes du Pacifique,
Antwerp: De Sikkel, 1932, pp. 92 (fig. 70),
96–99 (figs. 75–83).
Hentze 1932, p. 139 (fig. 135).
Hentze 1932, pp. 107 (fig. 97), 168 (fig. 153).
Hentze 1932, pp. 99–100.
161 Like the ones on the extremities of three stacked beams over the entrance to the ‘Great Stupa’ at
Sanchi (India, first century bce). Angela Lazzarotto and Federica Gullino, Werelderfgoed. 20 000 jaar
beschaving in beeld, Tielt: Lannoo, 2007, pp. 80–81.
157 77
ing’, the ‘female’ principle. The dynamic, implementing life force is also
called Prana (of which Mukhiya Prana is the most primary dimension), the
static-potential ‘serpent’ force Kundalini Shakti. The name itself derives
from kund, ‘twisting, coiling’. It is inherently neither good nor bad. It is the
energy of the ‘goddess’, hence on the female side. It is the infinite power
at the basis of the ‘path’. As long as we cannot actively utilize and direct
it – through yoga, i.e. ‘discipline’, for instance – it continues to sustain the
person physically and mentally. Its more subtle and powerful dimensions
remain virtually or potentially present, but must be ‘opened up’ through a
special disposition. When, for instance, a yogi works via the chakras or ‘energy nodes’ (literally ‘wheels’), Kundalini’s immense forces can be used for
higher purposes. Kundalini is therefore the ‘mistress’, the ‘mother’ and the
‘giver’ of yoga (Rudra-yamala, 2.26.41 and 2.26.21–22). Rousing the ‘sleeping’ Kundalini is highly dangerous, because its powers are undefined and
infinite. ‘Let loose’, they can destroy the person, and so ‘discipline’ ( yoga)
is needed.
Within the human body, Kundalini ‘sleeps’ at the ‘root’ of the spine (on
the ‘holy bone’ or os sacrum; this bone also had a sacred character in Western culture in antiquity). Seven ‘knots’ of energy, called chakras, are located along the body’s vertical central axis. The energetics of the body were
summarized in the Indian tradition in the doctrine of the seven chakras.
They are, as it were, the twists of the rising axis/column.
in Indian cosmogony) in a rising and falling spiral movement. For ordinary
mortals, it is the highly dangerous location of lower passions; for the yogi
it is a bright, attractive cooking pot. Kundalini, ‘the coiled’ (in three and
a half turns) source of all form-creating energies sleeps here. [The name
‘Kundalini’ therefore means more or less the same as ‘volute’ (or even ‘vulva’, though not in the literal sense).] Kundalini awakens here too – necessary but at once highly dangerous. Muladhara also gathers the energies
of observation. It is the starting point of the vertebrae, the hiera surinx.
Among the North-African Berbers, this is the akhellal (mentioned earlier),
and in Pharaonic Egypt the djed column.163
1. Muladhara The lowest chakra, the name of which means ‘root’, is located at the ‘root’ of the spine, specifically in the coccyx or ‘sacred bone’
(hieron osteon, os sacrum). This is considered by a variety of popular anthropologies to be the incorruptible part of the body, from which the person will be resurrected.162 It is home to 72,000 nadi or nerve points, which
form the physical basis for the chakras. It is the body’s static pole, visualized as a cauldron full of lower energies, the site of seething desire. The
mystic form of this is a square (prithivi-tattwa), full of ethereal, form-creating energies. Its mystic action churns the Ocean of Milk (a central image
2. Svadhisthana The second chakra, the name of which roughly means
‘her favourite place’, is located in the lowest part of the spine, and is associated with the sexual organs and the procreative function (Gr.: gonades;
Lat.: genitalia). It is here that the life-force resides, the ‘marrow’ of the
soul, its connection with the body. This ‘sap’ also runs through the vertebrae and is concentrated in the genitals. It is likewise connected with
‘articulation’ (cf. ‘knee’).164
3. Manipura This is located at the navel and the ‘solar plexus’ (plexus solaris). It is the ‘telepathic brain’ of the lower body, associated with taste and
pleasure. It is also the site of food, digestion and combustion, and hence of
fire. The lower part of the mortal soul resides here, the vis appetitiva (Ar.
nefs, Hebr. nefesh), which we also share with other living creatures. In this
chakra, the name of which means ‘house of the jewel’, ‘lives’ the ‘phallocentric’ urge to invest, to conquer, to make equal with oneself.
4. Anahata Located at the heart, this chakra is the site of striving (for
the spiritual, for light-energy). Anahata means ‘not touched’. It is the site
Cf. Katherine Harper and Robert Brown, The roots of Tantra, New York: suny Press, 2002.
The knee (Gr.: gonu, Lat.: genu, Arab.: rokba, Berb.: afud), as basal joint/hinge/transition-to-asubsequent-element (articulation) of the body, was, by ‘analogy’ with a new generation or articulation
of the family tree, particularly associated with procreative energy. See Rudolf Mehringer, ‘Spitze,
Winkel, Knie im ursprünglichen Denken’, Wörter und Sachen 11 (1928), pp. 114–23, 143.
163 164 162 78
Pâques 1992.
of prana as the ‘breath of life’, just as the lungs enable the human being to
breathe and live. This is the site, in the Western tradition, of the thumos
(Gr.) or animus (Lat.) – the higher part of the mortal soul. [Initially, in Homeric times, the thumos was the conscious spirit, the vehicle of thought
and feeling, like the Sanskrit manas; it was later limited to feeling, passion, courage and rage.] The ‘little house’ below this chakra corresponds
with the diaphragm – the division, according to Plato, between the higher
(‘spirit’) and lower (‘desire’) parts of the mortal soul.
The reason for including the above summary is
that it might be argued that these complex energetics are implicitly present in the spiral column and – more completely still – in the double
spiral column. This is, as it were, an aesthetic
reminiscence and condensation of the doctrine
of the bodily axis, the sushumna-nadi, through
which Kundalini can rise. Two for­ces coil around
this bodily axis in opposite spirals: Pingala and
Ida. When Kundalini is aroused uncontrollably,
it can follow these spirals in a stream that flows Fig. 48 Caduceus, emblem
out destructively in every direction, hurling of Hermes and Asclepius
the person back and forth or tearing them to
pieces.165 This learning and experiential system
deals with cosmic and hence human-transcending energies (this is what
makes unprepared and disorderly interaction with them so dangerous),
which can be creative, trans-substantiating but also destructive.
The same feeling must also have existed – unconsciously? – in the
Mediterranean region. The god Phanes (‘Lightbringer’) was represented in Hellenistic art as a winged boy, around whose body a snake coiled
three and a half times.166 The Kundalini system was also represented in
­Greco-Roman antiquity in the staff of Hermes/Mercury and that of the
5. Vishuddha This chakra, located at the throat, is the centre of anasha,
‘ether’, the sphere of the pure soul, the gateway to liberation. This is why
in countless lives of early Christian saints, after every imaginable torture
has failed to kill the martyr, it is beheading that signifies the end of his or
her (worldly) life. A related conviction regarding the energy of this node
therefore exists outside the Indian tradition. It is here that language ‘resides’, the Word. Vishuddha means ‘purification’ (of the ‘animal’ system).
In the Western classical tradition, the trachelos (Gr.) or collum (Latin) was
the isthmus between the higher and lower soul.
6. Ajna This chakra, located above the eyes, is the site of command and rational order. In the early classical Greek tradition, the psuchè (the immortal part of the soul, like the asu in Sanskrit) or, for the Romans, the genios
(related to gignere, ‘generate/create’) resided here in the enkefalos or cerebrum. This was later the site, beginning with Plato and his followers, of rational and intellectual order (like the Sanskrit atman). The substance corresponding with the psuchè was the ‘marrow’ (medulla), more specifically,
cerebrospinal matter. This is why the soul was represented as a snake, the
creature that personified, as it were, the cerebrospinal element.
7. Sahasrara In the classical tradition, korufè (Gr.) or vertex (Lat.) is the
link between heaven and the soul. Which is why, Plato says, human beings
are able to walk upright. In the Christian, but also the Islamic and Eastern
traditions, people with exceptional ‘head power’ are surrounded by a nimbus or halo – visually analogous to the ‘thousand-leaved lotus’ in Buddhist
iconography and the epiphany of matrixial powers.
165 The sensory and sensual desires of the not-yet-enlightened person will then be infinitely
reinforced. The ‘snake energy’ must be guided along the ‘straight path’ or ‘great path’ (mahapatha). This is, however, also the smashana or ‘burning ground’, because the arousal and activation
of Kundalini is, like the ‘trance’ in other cultural traditions, analogous to death – that of the ‘old
person’. The gradual and controlled rise of Kundalini brings about a ‘dissolution’ (laya-krama, lamayoga) that must herald a ‘trans-substantiation’. The force must arise along the axis, which is itself
strengthened as a result. Each chakra is activated and is now fully functioning. This is accompanied
by the spiritual process of the ‘changing of the body chemistry’, bhûta-shuddhi. Following the ‘transit’
of the rising Kundalini, the chakra is left behind ‘as if empty’ and purified. It is said that the vibration
or quivering of this purified chakra is raised to the subtlest level, and so connects with the cosmic
matrix. The chakras are then ‘closed’ again, but no longer through the action of their karmic burden.
The ‘lower spirit’ (manas) is elevated to ‘higher spirit’ (buddhi ), which itself finds its way through
to the subtle matrix of nature (sûkshma prakriti ). The latter dissolves in turn in the para-bindu.
This absorption or non-binary realization (laya) is likewise the highest goal of tantra yoga.
166 Rykwert 1996, p. 71.
primordial physician Asclepius – a staff entwined with two snakes ascending in opposing spirals. It remains the emblem to this day of medicine,
or the interaction between life and death. From the caduceus or staff of
Hermes to the Asclepius emblem of modern medicine (fig. 48), the snake
has been the symbol since the earliest times of life and death (venom) and
resurrection (shedding the skin), and as such also of the earth; the double
spiral resumes the intertwined forces of life and death.
In North Africa, the snake is the symbol of the earthbound genius loci,
as witnessed already by stelae from the Roman period. As noted earlier, a
similar intuitive pattern regarding the importance of the vertical energy
axis is found in the Berber textile art of North Africa (albeit without, as
far as we know, the detailed breakdown into power-points or chakras): the
hayya or akhellal. This energy pattern, which is so important in India, was
perceived in a related way in the Mediterranean and North African region,
though without such detailed content.
The ‘birth motif’ and the double turn
There is one motif with the double volute/spiral that is found all over the
world: the so-called ‘birth motif’. Research shows that it was spread over
an area stretching from Europe to Southeast Asia, Central Asia and the
Pacific cultures.167 It was also known, however, in Africa and in the Amer­
indian cultures, which means it belongs to one of the few truly global iconographies. The motif stretches far back into history too: examples are
known from the Neolithic period (6th millenium bce),168 at sites including
Hacilar.169 There are two versions of it: one geometric, the other curvilinear. Its geometric version essentially consists of a diamond shape, with a
symmetrical hook at the top and bottom points, which fold outwards and
167 Max Allen, The Birth Symbol in Traditional Women’s Art from Eurasia and the Western Pacific,
Toronto: Museum for Textiles, 1981. The importance of this small, forgotten little book cannot
be overstated. Also: A. Ambros, ‘Ein Kultsymbol der frühen Ackerbauern: Rhombus mit Haken’,
in Turkmenenforschung (Hamburg) 7 (1986), pp. 83–106.
168 Gimbutas 1989, p. 309.
169 The Goddess of Anatolia, vol. 1, pl. vi , 9 and 11.
Fig. 49 Anonymous,
6th century bce. Pediment of
the Temple of Mater Matuta.
Rome, Museo del Campidoglio.
Photograph: the author
then inwards. In the curvilinear version it is a round, oval or elliptical form
with two opposing volutes at the top and bottom.
Unsurprisingly, this birth motif is chiefly found in women’s art, primarily in weaving, and goes by many names. It appears in some cases in
a figurative context, in which it reveals an unmistakable association with
the gift of new life. An example is provided by a ceremonial woman’s skirt
from Sumba, the principal figure of which is shown in the orans pose. A
newborn baby hangs beneath her spread legs, still connected by the umbilical cord to her mother’s navel. The ‘child’ is represented by the ‘birth
symbol’.170 The latter also features in the tnalak or ‘birth blankets’ of Mindanao (Philippines).171 Some schol­ars interpret the ‘birth symbol’ as a stylized woman, pregnant or giving birth: the diamond is the body, the four
hooks, the arms and legs. This view is seemingly confirmed by a number
of textiles, primarily East Asian (Philippines, Malaysia, for instance), depicting pregnant or birthing women in this way.172 These versions strike us
as somewhat literal. But the vast majority of examples are purely abstract,
just like the iconography of weaving that derives from Neolithic traditions.
The diamond with hooks is more a stylization of a collective and worldwide self-perception focusing on childbirth: something that curls open/
Hali (London), no. 63, 1992, p. 95.
Allen 1981, p. 77.
172 Allen 1981.
170 171 83
Fig. 50 Anonymous, c. 300. Strigil sarcophagus. Rome, Museo Nazionale Romano.
Photograph: the author
Fig. 51 Facial tattoo with double
spiral of the Maori Tupai Cupa.
After MacKenzie 1926, fig. 38
Fig. 52 Anonymous, Neolithic,
China, 2nd millennium bce.
Double spirals on funerary vase.
Whereabouts unknown
unhooks and embodies the potential to close again. Hooks and volutes
embody, after all, a paradoxical movement: they widen and then close up
again, and the curves of the volute repeat this double movement.
The birth motif appears outside weaving in ephemeral objects like
cakes. It was customary in European folk culture to offer cakes shaped like
the birth symbol at New Year or on the birth of a child. A painting by Peeter
Snijers (1681–1752), January, includes a detailed depiction of a cake of this
kind (kmska , inv. 5103). These cakes must be ancient in origin: Neolithic sites have produced identical clay models (possibly votive offerings).173
There is a remarkable similarity to a certain type of representation of the
Gorgon or Medusa. This ideogram possesses fundamentally uterine, matrixial and sexual connotations. Let us recall that the word ‘volute’ derives
from the Latin volvere or volutare – ‘turn/twist’. Vulva – earlier form volva
(‘lying rolled-up’?) – also derives from the same root (fig. 49); a ‘twist’ was
thus essentially ascribed to the female genitals, not necessarily as a physiological but rather an affective characteristic.174 The Ionic column, with its
double volute, associated with the goddess Athena – and also by extension
with her ‘dark side’, personified by the Medusa – likewise developed from
the complex of the much older ‘birth motif’.175
If the double volute/spiral/twist embodies the idea of procreative force
and life – or more accurately, perhaps, of the necessity of life and death,
death and life – so too does the double strigil, albeit in a more restrained
way (fig. 50).176 A large number of antique and early Christian sarcophagi
throughout the Mediterranean region are decorated with two fields of undulating lines (‘strigils’) running in opposite directions. Death and rebirth
are evoked here, unsurprisingly in a funerary context.
Gimbutas 1989, p. 147.
The birth motif is also linked – and this in the most divergent cultures – with the toad, a preeminently ‘female’ and above all ‘uterine’ creature; detailed information in: Vandenbroeck 2000,
pp. 204–08.
175 Zie Wim van Binsbergen, www.shikanda.net
176 Emma Sidgwick, Touching the Threshold of Creation. The Haemoroïssa Motif (Mark 5:24B-34
PARR) between Anthropological Origin and Image Paradigm, unpublished doctoral thesis, Leuven
2012, pp. 165–76.
173 174 85
We have lingered in North Africa, because this region is still directly
linked with the Mediterranean cultural region from which the Solomonic
column and the volute arose. North Africa is by no means the only area,
however, in which equivalents to the double spiral and volute play such an
important (sub)symbolic role. Other cultural regions might equally well
have been explored in similar depth (fig. 51). The double, opposite spiral
also features prominently – to give just one example – in Neolithic Chinese
pottery (fig. 52) and Chalcolithic Chinese bronze art.
3. After the early Christian period, the Solomonic column was revived in
Christian art by the thirteenth-century maestri cosmateschi in Italy, and
made its triumphal return in the sixteenth century, beginning with Raphael and Giulio Romano. It was the Baroque, however, that made the spiral
a central ‘model’ and in which the spiral column would be applied thousands of times in every branch of art.
1. The spiral, the volute and the curl, whether or not double or symmetrical, where essential motifs at subsymbolic and symbolic level in the history of European art. In Mediterranean and ‘Western’ art in the Hellenistic
East, the spiral column arose possibly in a Dionysian/Bacchic context: ecstatic movement, spinning, dizziness, trance and participation in cosmic
energies played a central role in these rites. The spiral was an externalized
expression of this.177 The ‘Solomonic’ column made its appearance in Roman art on imperial coins in the second century.
2. Helical columns were associated with the highest arcane forces, above
all those of the divine (hence their association with the Caesar) and specifically of gods like Bacchus/Dionysus, and, in Christianity, the Redeemer who conquered death and made possible a new life. Beginning in the
fourth century, and probably earlier than that too, Christianity associated
the spiral column with the Temple of Solomon and hence with the pre-eminently sacred; ‘Solomonic columns’ henceforward surrounded the ‘Holy
of Holies’ at St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, from where they disseminated the
subsymbolic value attached to them.
4. Rubens too used the Solomonic column on a number of occasions: in
his Triumph of the Eucharist cycle (literally framed by these pillars) they
evoke the cosmic dimension of the Eucharist; in marriage portraits the
life-­creating force; and in allegories, natural forces. But the ‘twist’ – more
vague than the helical column – is also characteristic of Rubens’s art, in
which it displays similar connotations of dynamism.
5. The spiral and double spiral are not only part of Mediterranean and European traditions, they can also be identified in a variety of guises in a wide
variety of cultures.
6. What was ‘represented’ in art from antiquity to the Baroque through
two opposing Solomonic columns or volutes was evoked in archaic, domestic weaving in many cultures by opposing zigzags – on either side of
a piece of fabric, for instance. Even in compositional terms, the form and
content of this arrangement match the pairs of Solomonic columns found
on either side of religious or secular works of art in the European tradition.
7. The double zigzag, appearing under many names, evokes the highest,
cosmic, life-creating forces. it served in cultures of the most varied kind
as an imageless image of vital energy, procreative power, pregnancy and
birth. The double, opposing spiral is a millennia-old motif expressing the
dynamism of creation and becoming. Nowhere was the doctrine of the
‘Solomonic’ body-pillar developed at such length as in the shaft with two
opposite spirals, the central image of Indian belief in the human being as
microcosm: Kundalini with Ida and Pingala.
177 Whereas the twist could be a literal element of the body – a curly tail, for instance – the helix
was also inherent to natural and supernatural forces; in polytheism: sea creatures in particular;
in Christianity: demons, ghosts, etc.
8. The double helix or volute is a visualization of a central element in the
subaltern cosmogonies of the Ancient Near East, the Mediterranean region, and North and West African civilizations. According to these b
­ eliefs,
the universe arose from a double spiral of cosmic dimensions, in a single,
indivisible and, as it were, timeless instant. Traditions of this kind in North
and West Africa are known in detail. It is as if archaic societies unconsciously sensed that the core dynamic of the evolutionary process is a double spiral, as recently confirmed by scientific research into the dna double
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Victor Chapot, La colonne torse et le décor en hélice dans l’art antique, Paris: Leroux, 1907.
Déonna 1952
Waldemar Déonna, ‘Sacra vitis’, Les cahiers techniques de l’art 2 (1952), no. 3, pp. 1–64.
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Alois Fuchs, ‘Die Spiralsäule in der Kunstgeschichte’, Westfalen 29 (1951), pp. 127–40.
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Balaji Mundker, The Cult of the Serpent: an Interdisciplinary Survey of its Manifestations,
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Antiquity 7 (1996), pp. 313–40.
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David Summers, Maniera and Movement: the figura serpentinata, The Art Bulletin 25
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